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That Secret Iranian ‘Nuclear Facility’ You Just Found? Not So Much.

That Secret Iranian ‘Nuclear Facility’ You Just Found? Not So Much.

On Tuesday, Feb. 24, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political front for the “cult-like dissident group” known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), revealed the location of what it claimed was an underground centrifuge facility in the suburbs of Tehran. The announcement was, evidently, intended to derail ongoing negotiations toward a diplomatic settlement over Tehran’s nuclear programs. The State Department spokeswoman stated, “Well, we don’t have any information at this time to support the conclusion of the report.”

That’s not quite the same thing as saying it’s a load of bullfeathers, but we’ll get there in due course. The story may be false, but it demonstrates both the culture of leaks in Washington and the way open-source information can challenge that culture.

This is not the first time that NCRI has organized a press conference with startling revelations about Iran’s nuclear program. The one everyone remembers was in 2002, when the group made the first public reference to the underground enrichment facility at Natanz. Reporting by folks like Mark Hibbs, however, suggests the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already knew about the existence of the site. An intelligence agency simply may have laundered the information through NCRI. The group has more often gotten the story all wrong. For example, NCRI calls the new site Lavizan-3. For some reason, they don’t talk about Lavizan-2, which was a site they “revealed” in 2008, shortly after the United States released a National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had “halted” or paused its covert nuclear weapons program, in what was totally-not-a-coincidence.

But when I read NCRI’s latest dossier, I thought of a totally different case — one involving North Korea. During the late 1990s, there was growing opposition to the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze plutonium production in exchange for heavy fuel oil and a new light-water reactor to be constructed in North Korea. In August 1998, a U.S. “official” told the New York Times’s David Sanger that satellite images showed North Korea constructing an underground nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant near Kumchang-ri. The Old Gray Lady ran the story under this restrained headline: NORTH KOREA SITE AN A-BOMB PLANT, U.S. AGENCIES SAY.

That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) thought Kumchang-ri might house a secret nuclear reactor. The rest were more skeptical. Jack Pritchard was an intelligence analyst at time. “Everybody threw up their hands and said we don’t know what it is, but we don’t have a better explanation,’’ he would later tell Dan Sneider of the San Jose Mercury News. The DIA couldn’t win consensus for its view within the government, so someone decided to appeal though the press. The U.S. intelligence community might not have collectively agreed that Kumchang-ri was an underground nuclear reactor, but that no longer mattered after the New York Times said otherwise. The Clinton administration was forced to negotiate access for a team of inspectors to the site, at considerable expense to U.S. taxpayers.

When the inspectors arrived, they could not determine the purpose of the site, but concluded that Kumchang-ri, laid out as a grid of tunnels, was “unsuitable” for a nuclear reactor and “not well designed” for a reprocessing facility. It was just a big, enigmatic hole in the ground. Still, the damage was done: The Clinton administration asked former Secretary of Defense William Perry to undertake a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea, motivated in part by Kumchang-ri and other allegations of North Korean cheating. Although there was a last-minute effort to re-engage with North Korea under something called the “Perry Process,” the Clinton administration ran out of time. George W. Bush’s administration undertook its own policy review once in office, but then shelved its “bold approach” after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that North Korea was pursuing a sizeable covert uranium enrichment program.

Much like the case of Kumchang-ri, there is every reason to think the latest allegations by NCRI represent a politically motivated effort to derail the engagement of Iran over its nuclear program.

Almost immediately, there were reasons to doubt NCRI’s claim. A review of commercial satellite images reveals no evidence of large-scale excavation or tunneling during the 2004-2008 period identified by NCRI. The site seems to lack a suitable transformer substation for electricity to power centrifuges or evidence of ventilation systems so workers underneath can breathe. (It turns out workers tend to insist on breathing.) And if Iran had excavated a massive 2,000-square-meter underground facility, where’d all the dirt go? It just doesn’t add up.

Moreover, the press release contained a number of details that were obviously fabricated. NCRI claimed that the facility had “3 by 3 m radiation proof doors that are 40 centimeters thick and weigh about 8 tons … to prevent radiation leak.” There is no reason for such doors at a uranium-enrichment facility, which is not subject to massive radiation leaks. Almost immediately, others were able to determine that the picture of the door released by NCRI was actually lifted from an Iranian commercial website. That detail is just balderdash, despite NCRI’s lame defense that the firm supplies doors to the Iranian nuclear industry.

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The site that NCRI identified is, in fact, a facility operated by a firm called Matiran. NCRI described Matiran as a firm that produces identification documents, like passports, for the Iranian government. Helpfully, that’s how Matiran describes itself, as well. You may not have heard of it before — I had not — but its representatives attend international conferences and its employees post their CVs on social networking sites. The construction of the new facility roughly corresponds with Matiran’s successful bid to produce the new Iranian national identification card.

­­Hey, what do I know, but it seems unlikely that Iran has decided to double-up producing ID cards and enriching uranium at the same site.

But guess what? I found someone who’s been there. This illustration shows a “GPS trace” created by a European who visited the site in February 2013. (There is a cool project called “Open Street Map” which is like Google Maps meets Wikipedia.) The user traveled from a hotel in Tehran to the Matiran facility in question and uploaded the GPS trace of his route to Open Street Map. (He has since taken it down.) Despite claims by NCRI that the site is located within a “restricted military zone,” he took a car right into the site. Since the journey is time-stamped, we can tell he didn’t spend a bunch of time at checkpoints.

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My colleague Paul-Anton Krüger, who writes for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, and I contacted this person. His story checks out. Iran makes identification cards at the site. It also has a steady stream of foreign visitors. None of his colleagues saw anything out of the ordinary.

In addition to foreign firms working with Matiran, at least two international delegations have also visited the facility. Iran organized an October 2011 site visit by a delegation of National Civil Registration Organizations as part of a conference held in Tehran. Iran organized a second site visit, in April 2013, as part of a similar meeting. So there you have it: NCRI “found” a secret site producing identification cards that has been visited repeatedly by foreigners.

Somehow, not a single newspaper tried to contact any of these people. Carol Morello at the Washington Post wrote that NCRI’s claims “could not be independently verified.” Yeah, not unless you have a computer and an Internet connection.

This is not to suggest that the problem of covert enrichment sites in Iran is not a real concern. It is by far the biggest challenge facing any deal. Iran still maintains the remnants of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program. (The enigmatic Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has to have an office somewhere.) Moreover, Iran has been repeatedly caught attempting to build covert enrichment facilities. The details suggest Iran had no intention of declaring enrichment plants at Natanz or Fordow. And Iran still denies that a nearby site, referred to as Lavizan-Shian, housed a covert weapons program, despite the fact that Tehran bulldozed the site after the IAEA expressed interest, turning it into a park. At one point, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly discussed constructing as many as 10 new enrichment facilities at various locations.

So, yeah: Any new agreement with Iran is going to depend on some measure of confidence in the West’s ability to detect covert sites.

But this ain’t one of ’em. The Iranian government could, of course, invite one more delegation to a site visit, perhaps to serve them a working lunch of crow.

This was like old times for Krüger and me. He helped me debunk another suspected centrifuge plant back in 2011, when “officials” leaked information to the Associated Press suggesting that the IAEA suspected that Syria had an enrichment facility on the outskirts of Hasakah — one that was identical to plans for a centrifuge facility found in Libya, right down to the toilets.

Within a few days, however, I was able to determine that the site was actually a textile factory constructed by East Germany in the early 1980s. Both old satellite images and the Syrian company’s website helped establish its purpose. Krüger then actually tracked down the chief East German engineer and scored an interview. The facility was not a copy of a Libyan centrifuge facility. The Libyan facility, on the other hand, might have been disguised as an East German-built textile factory, many examples of which can be found in the Middle East. One wonders if it was designed by German business partners of Pakistan’s Dr. A. Q. Khan. My colleague Tamara Patton built a pretty cool 3-D model of the site, if you are interested.

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The important thing is that open-source tools, plus a little investigative shoe leather, allowed us to quickly determine that the allegation was false. I was able to go through historical satellite photographs to determine the date of construction and find the firm’s website. I have never met Krüger in person, but we were able to collaborate over email. We killed off this particular rumor — and without Washington having to pay the local authorities millions of dollars’ worth of “aid” to get a look inside. You’re welcome, taxpayers!

Any agreement with Iran is destined to contend with a series of leaks like this. But let’s remember: The MEK and the United States have fundamentally different interests. The MEK highlights Iran’s nuclear programs — real, imagined, and downright fabricated — as a way to build support for regime change in Tehran. Hemming in the Iranian nuclear program through diplomacy removes one of the MEK’s most effective talking points in favor of bombing Iran. They won’t go down without a fight.

We can expect to hear more about Iran’s misdeeds ahead of any agreement, and as long as there is an agreement in place. It is probably too much to ask many journalists to fact-check their stories in advance. Even with the best of intentions, journalists operate under tight deadlines and the fear of being scooped by less cautious colleagues. (Ed. note: The author is not referring to the fine journalists at Foreign Policy.) But those of us in civil society can hold the MEK, comically bellicose pundits, and credulous journalists accountable in way that would have been impossible in 1998 when Kumchang-ri broke. (We can, however, ask them to run corrections with the same prominence as error-ridden alarmist stories.)

It really is a different world than in August 1998, when Google didn’t even exist. (Well, at least for another few weeks.) There are many reasons to hope that a nuclear deal with Tehran will prove more durable than the one with Pyongyang, one of which is the flood of open-source information. There is, today, an enormous amount of information that can help the public sort fact from fiction. It is really is just a matter of having skilled nongovernmental groups working in the public interest. There isn’t, at the moment, much funding available for this sort of work and only a few institutions really do it for nuclear issues, including the Institute for Science and International Security as well as my home institution, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. But the important point, the one illustrated by the Hasakah Spinning Factory and now Matiran, is that, given a chance, we can sort fact from fiction, and at a modest cost.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images