Last week the leaders of the US, UK and France made public the discovery of a second, secret, Iranian enrichment facility near Qom.
However, this was not a new find: American, British and French intelligence agencies are believed to have known about it for over two years (though only concluded that it was an enrichment plant earlier this summer). Days earlier, when it seems they realised it had been discovered, Iran attempted to head-off international criticism by declaring a “pilot plant” at Qom to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is already monitoring the facility in Natanz the Iranians were forced to acknowledge in 2002.
This was a propaganda gift for opponents of the Iranian nuclear programme. It allowed Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown to make the extraordinary joint statement during an important period in the international political calendar – ahead of the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, and days after the opening of the UN General Assembly and less than a week before the UN special session on nuclear proliferation on Thursday.
It seemed to make little difference that the three leaders represented countries with their own nuclear weapon programmes (an irony not lost on everyone).
Reactions from within the region have been understandably mixed. Iran’s Arab neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, fear the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon capability but also worry that recent developments will be the precursor to the agreement of a ‘grand bargain’ between Iran and the west that will leave Iran unchecked as a powerful regional player.
Israel – who has long been preparing for air strikes against Iran – sees the revelation that Iran has once again been misleading the international community as a vindication of its hard-line stance. The Iranian leadership itself, however, remains defiant – insisting its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful and well within the limits of international law. The Iranians view the capacity to produce nuclear power as a sign of modernity and in keeping with their position as a powerful regional actor.
Analysts will now look at what is known about the facility in Qom to try and discern if it was for use in a civilian programme as the Iranians claim. At the moment, the evidence does not look favourable. The facility is reportedly of a size to accommodate 3,000 centrifuges – too large to be a pilot plant and far too small to be of any real use in a nuclear power programme. However, this number of centrifuges can produce enough enriched uranium each year for use in a nuclear weapon if so desired (once further processed to high enriched uranium).
Ultimately, though, it is the continued deception by the Iranian regime that will raise the greatest suspicion, even amongst those that, post-Iraq, do not entirely trust the word of western governments and their intelligence agencies.
So are we a step closer to war with Iran?
Probably not. Though the war drums will beat a little louder in some capitals, not least Jerusalem, the disastrous consequences of a military strike against Iran make it unlikely, though not impossible, at this stage. But in this high risk game of international political poker the stakes have just been raised; the horse trading to follow will reveal who holds the best cards.