Iran Shielding Its Nuclear Efforts in Maze of Tunnels

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Pastor Dale Morgan

Jan 5, 2010, 10:41:45 PM1/5/10
*Perilous Times

Iran Shielding Its Nuclear Efforts in Maze of Tunnels*

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, center, at a highway tunnel near
Tehran. Much of Iran's atomic work is also in tunnels.

Published: January 5, 2010
New York Times

Last September, when Iran�s uranium enrichment plant buried inside a
mountain near the holy city of Qum was revealed, the episode cast light
on a wider pattern: Over the past decade, Iran has quietly hidden an
increasingly large part of its atomic complex in networks of tunnels and
bunkers across the country.

Iran's nuclear plant at Isfahan has many buildings above ground, but
American nuclear analysts say that Iran has also filled the nearby
mountains with tunnels.

In doing so, American government and private experts say, Iran has
achieved a double purpose. Not only has it shielded its infrastructure
from military attack in warrens of dense rock, but it has further
obscured the scale and nature of its notoriously opaque nuclear effort.
The discovery of the Qum plant only heightened fears about other
undeclared sites.

Now, with the passing of President Obama�s year-end deadline for
diplomatic progress, that cloak of invisibility has emerged as something
of a stealth weapon, complicating the West�s military and geopolitical

The Obama administration says it is hoping to take advantage of domestic
political unrest and disarray in Iran�s nuclear program to press for a
regimen of strong and immediate new sanctions. But a crucial factor
behind that push for nonmilitary solutions, some analysts say, is Iran�s
tunneling � what Tehran calls its strategy of �passive defense.�

Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has repeatedly discounted
the possibility of a military strike, saying that it would only slow
Iran�s nuclear ambitions by one to three years while driving the program
further underground.

Some analysts say that Israel, which has taken the hardest line on Iran,
may be especially hampered, given its less formidable military and
intelligence abilities.

�It complicates your targeting,� said Richard L. Russell, a former
Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at the National Defense
University. �We�re used to facilities being above ground. Underground,
it becomes literally a black hole. You can�t be sure what�s taking place.�

Even the Israelis concede that solid rock can render bombs useless. Late
last month, the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, told Parliament
that the Qum plant was �located in bunkers that cannot be destroyed
through a conventional attack.�

Heavily mountainous Iran has a long history of tunneling toward civilian
as well as military ends, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has played a recurring
role � first as a transportation engineer and founder of the Iranian
Tunneling Association and now as the nation�s president.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of big tunnels in Iran, according
to American government and private experts, and the lines separating
their uses can be fuzzy. Companies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps of Iran, for example, build civilian as well as military

No one in the West knows how much, or exactly what part, of Iran�s
nuclear program lies hidden. Still, evidence of the downward atomic push
is clear to the inquisitive.

Google Earth, for instance, shows that the original hub of the nuclear
complex at Isfahan consists of scores of easily observed � and easy to
attack � buildings. But government analysts say that in recent years
Iran has honeycombed the nearby mountains with tunnels. Satellite photos
show six entrances.

Iranian officials say years of veiled bombing threats prompted their
country to exercise its �sovereign right� to protect its nuclear
facilities by hiding them underground. That was their argument when they
announced plans in November to build 10 uranium enrichment plants.
Despite the improbability and bluster of the claim, Iran�s tunneling
history gave it a measure of credibility.

�They will be scattered in the mountains,� the chief of the Atomic
Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran�s Press TV. �We
will be using the passive defense so that we don�t need to have active
defense, which is very expensive.�

Mr. Gates, along with other Western officials, has dismissed that line
of argument as cover for a covert arms program.

�If they wanted it for peaceful purposes,� he said of the Qum plant on
CNN, �there�s no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be
deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.�

Iran denies that its nuclear efforts are for military purposes and
insists that it wants to unlock the atom strictly for peaceful aims,
like making electricity. It says it wants to build many enrichment
plants to fuel up to 20 nuclear power plants, a plan many economists
question because Iran ranks second globally in oil and natural gas reserves.

Ploy or not, any expansion seems unlikely to zoom ahead. After a decade
of construction, Iran�s main enrichment plant, at Natanz, operates at a
tiny fraction of its capacity. The Qum plant is only half built. Nuclear
experts say the new plants, if attempted, may not materialize for years
or decades. Even so, they note that tunnels would be the easiest part of
the plan and may get dug relatively soon.

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