WASHINGTON - Israel uncovered evidence of the existence of the Qom nuclear facility in Iran some six months ago, and is now presenting the Americans with evidence pointing to Iranian plans to build two more nuclear sites, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
According to the report, UN inspectors and intelligence specialists in Western countries believe Iran may be preparing to build at least two Qom "look-alikes" despite demands that it open up its nuclear program.
The report cites Western government officials and intelligence agencies involved in tracking Iran's nuclear activity. The information is based in part on satellite evidence, and on intelligence collected in covert operations.
The report says that UN inspectors are currently searching for evidence of the construction of two new sites. Sources close to the inspectors says the most compelling evidence is that while the Islamic Republic is working on new equipment to enrich uranium, this equipment cannot be found in the main plant which is regularly visited by inspectors.
Nor is it found at the Natanz site or the Qom facility. This has led inspectors to believe that the equipment is being transferred to the new facilities under construction.
Small factories across Iran are suspected of manufacturing the equipment, which is then stored in secret warehouses and transferred to the nuclear sites. According to the New York Times, those factories are under surveillance by Israeli, American and European intelligence agencies. Several of the factories have been penetrated by Western agents, which are receiving reports that Iran is encountering trouble in manufacturing centrifuges.
After US President Barack Obama revealed evidence of the Qom nuclear site in September, the Iranians announced plans to build 10 more nuclear sites. The Americans scoffed at this statement, believing Iran does not have the capability or budget for such an extensive project. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency is not taking Tehran's announcement lightly.
So far, no solid evidence of new sites has been found, and the United States believes Iran will be capable of producing nuclear weapons in up to four years. Suspicions that Iran is building new nuclear facilities has led the US to rewrite an intelligence estimate from 2007, which will be presented to Obama, the National Security Council and a number of members of Congress.
The previous estimate made no mention of the Qom site, and was criticized for concluding that Iran halted work on designing nuclear weapons in 2003.
But American officials believe that Iran is still behind schedule in its nuclear fuel production plans. Sources say the main facility at Natanz only operates at a tiny fraction of its intended capacity and US Central Command chief General David Petraeus has recently said that setbacks have been noted in Iran's nuclear activity.