Friday, April 14, 2006

Iran is Constructing a Secret, Large-scale Enrichment Plant at Neyshabour

Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim of Iranian success in low-level uranium enrichment was more bombastic than frank. Before springing his disclosure at a sacred mausoleum in the northern town of Mashhad on April 11, DEBKAfile’s Iranian sources disclose he paid a stealthy visit to Neyshabour in Khorassan, 38 kms to the southeast.

There, he inspected a project he omitted to mention in his Mashhad speech about low-level enrichment, namely, a top-secret plant under construction that is designed to run 155,000 centrifuges, enough to enrich uranium for 3-5 nuclear bombs a year. READ MORE

This is Project B, or the hidden face of the enrichment plant open to inspection at Natanz.

This plant, due for completion next October, is scheduled to go on line at the end of 2007. According to our intelligence sources, running-in has begun at some sections of the Neyshabour installation, which is located 600 km northeast of Tehran. DEBKAfile’s sources reveal too that the Neyshabour plant has been built 150 m deep under farmland covered with mixed vegetable crops and dubbed Shahid Moradian, in the name of a war martyr as obscure as its existence.

Already hard at work at Iran’s most ambitious nuclear project are hundreds of Iranian engineers, experts and assistants under the instruction of foreign specialists in the technology of centrifuge operation. Neyshabour is guarded day and night by the special Revolutionary Guards Corps elite Ansar al-Mahdi unit.

In Moscow Thursday, April 13, US assistant secretary of state on arms control Stephen Rademaker calculated that, with 54,000 centrifuges, the Iranians could produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb in 16 days. He was referring to the statement by Iran’s deputy nuclear chief Mohammed Saeed, who said his government planned to expand its enrichment program to 54,000 centrifuges from the 164 used in the small scale process announced Tuesday.

According to this reckoning, the Neshabour installation, when ready to go in three years, will have three times the capacity of Natanz and be able to turn out 9-15 bombs a year.

The clerical rulers in Tehran have long suspected the Americans or Israelis would eventually bomb Natanz out of existence. Therefore, four years ago, they began constructing its mirror - albeit on a far larger scale – in order to push ahead uninterrupted with enrichment for weapons, regardless of objections from the West, Israel and Arab neighbors.

Russian experts completed the initial plans in 2003 and construction began in early 2004. In late 2005, Bulgarian transport planes delivered tens of thousands of centrifuges from Belarus and Ukraine; they were transported directly to Neyshabour. In January 2006, 23 Ukrainian engineers arrived to start installing the equipment, joined in February by 46 Belarusian nuclear experts who are working in shifts to prepare the 155,000 P-1 and P-2 centrifuges for operation.

This compares with 60,000 in Nathanz – of which 40,000 are accessible for inspection while 20,000 are hidden in closed subterranean chambers.

Neyshabour, however, still needs to undergo experimental stages, according to our Iranian sources. It is far from sure that the Ukrainian and Belarusian experts will be able to put together a well-synchronized centrifuge project that is workable in the long term.

The Natanz project was long slowed by serious malfunctions in running the centrifuges purchased from Pakistan. They were only partially overcome lately. Now, Tehran needs three years to work in secret and in peace from outside interference and international inspections to achieve its first N-bomb.

Tehran’s “success” in enriching uranium, announced with fanfare last Tuesday, actually happened, according to our sources, eight months ago. Ahmadinejad timed his “disclosure” to achieve two goals:

One, as a fait accompli that would force the world to acknowledge that Iran had joined the world’s nuclear club as its eighth member, and two, to signal that the Islamic republic was close to achieving a nuclear weapon and capable of retaliating forcibly to international threats of penalties. Teheran’s grandiose war games two weeks ago were staged for the same purpose.

Russian and Chinese sources have their own interpretation of Tehran’s motives. They believe the Iranian president’s announcement was a knee-jerk reaction to the approaching UN Security Council deadline and the press reports of an approaching US military strike against its nuclear facilities. According to their theory, his bellicose stance was the prelude to a climb-down; Tehran would now announce its national objective has been accomplished and a line could be drawn on further advances.

DEBKAfile’s Iranian experts dismiss this theory as contrary to the mind-set of the Islamic republic’s rulers. They are convinced that Tehran sought the universal condemnation it encountered; it proved to the Iranian public that in a hostile world, Iran is fully justified in its go-it-alone program for arming their country with a nuclear weapon.