Iran pledged it would open its recently revealed uranium enrichment plant to U.N. inspectors, a senior European envoy said Thursday after a seven-nation meeting outside Geneva. The inspection at Qum could happen in the next few weeks.
So what would the inspectors look for to determine whether the facility is in place to produce fuel for the country's power plant, as Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told NPR Thursday, or to enrich uranium for an atomic weapon?
David Kay, who was chief weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency in the early 1990s and led the Bush administration's team searching for Iraqi weapons in 2003, says he would make sure he was not given a "tourist's tour of the plant."
"A real inspection involves looking at the facility from the inside out, taking dimensions, asking for original drawings, what was the build-to specifications, measuring any footings for the centrifuges that have been installed," Kay tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "How large are the centrifuges? Where did the power come from? Most importantly, talking to the engineers who did the design and construction and the scientists who are going to operate it. So it's a long process. It's not something you do in one day."
Kay, who is now a senior fellow for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, says he would also want to see drawings.
"You don't want to rely on any single type of information," he says. "So if the people describe one thing, you want to have confirming evidence in terms of drawings as well as your own measurements of the site. You come with a full kit capable of doing surveys of a facility like this."
Determining whether equipment comes from North Korea or Pakistan, for example, is "an amazing science," Kay says. He adds that the inspectors can usually figure out where the parts came from, but that involves following leads outside the country.
But the red flags that inspectors are looking for involve the centrifuges.
"There are certain ways they do put centrifuges together if you're going to run high-enriched uranium because you do not want high-enriched uranium to come together in too large a mass. It'll cause a critical prompt, which means a lot of neutrons and a lot of dead facility operators if they're around," Kay says.
"So there are tricks like that. Apparently the centrifuges [at Qum] have not yet been installed," he says. "The way to think of a centrifuge plant is a giant plumbing assembly. There are pipes running everywhere. Centrifuges, when they're working, run 24-7; they don't stop. You'll want to know if the centrifuge is an old design or a new design, as well."
Kay says the Iranians are on the "cusp" of losing credibility with international inspectors, especially since the plant was not disclosed until it was evident that the U.S. and other countries were aware of its existence.
"This takes me back to a real deja vu," Kay says. "I remember in 1991 explaining to very senior Iraqi authorities that if they continued deception and lying and letting us discover stuff before they declared it, eventually we would not believe them even if they started telling the truth. I think the Iranians are on the cusp of that point where even if they're fully cooperative in this inspection that is now going to be taking place at this facility, no one will be terribly satisfied about it.
"I'll give you two examples: The inspectors have asked for two years to interview a series of Iranian scientists by name. The Iranians have refused to make them available. [The inspectors] have asked about something discovered in the computer called the Green Salt Project. The Iranians have refused to answer any of those questions. From an inspector's point of view, this is behavior that really makes it difficult to build any sort of relationship on confidence."