By Karen DeYoung and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 26, 2009
President Obama's charge that Iran is constructing a secret nuclear fuel facility brought years of confrontation over the country's alleged nuclear weapons program to a new crisis point Friday, as he joined with the leaders of Britain and France to warn that international patience is waning fast.
"Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow," Obama said, condemning what he described as a "covert uranium enrichment facility" that Western intelligence discovered years ago and has since been covertly monitoring. He called for Iran to allow international inspectors to "immediately investigate" the facility, located beneath the mountains near the city of Qom.
In a hastily arranged appearance outside the Group of 20 conference in Pittsburgh, Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy outlined intelligence that Brown said would "shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve" to force Iran to change its path.
Iran's stubborn and charismatic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, offered no contrition, asserting that the facility is a legal and proper attempt to provide nuclear energy for his people. "We have no fears," he said at a New York news conference in which he welcomed inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In response to Obama's description of the facility as designed to produce weapons-grade uranium, Ahmadinejad said, "I don't think Mr. Obama is a nuclear expert."
Friday's announcement capped a week of behind-the-scenes action in which Iran and the United States each maneuvered to reveal the information on its own terms. U.S. intelligence officials briefing reporters in Washington declined to be precise, but they said they had learned about the facility by early 2007. They said it is not yet operational but may be capable in 2010 of producing enough material for at least one bomb per year.
The CIA, along with its British and French counterparts, spent the summer compiling a dossier of information that administration officials said they had not yet decided how and when to reveal. Their hand was forced, they said, by a letter the Iranian government sent to the IAEA in Vienna on Monday.
U.S. officials said they thought the letter came after the Iranians learned of the Western intelligence and decided to preempt disclosures about the site. The letter vaguely described construction of a "pilot" plant to enrich uranium up to 5 percent, enough for power production but far less than the 90 percent required for weapons material. "Further complementary information will be provided in an appropriate and due time," the letter said.
The revelations came in the run-up to the first international talks about Iran's nuclear program in more than a year. On Thursday, a senior Iranian diplomat is scheduled to meet in Geneva with counterparts from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, a group known as the P5-plus-one. U.S. officials described the upcoming meeting as a key moment in the long nuclear standoff, saying the Qom facility will be at the top of the agenda.
The U.S., British and French leaders apparently hope that new evidence of Iran's deception will diminish reservations among the two other Security Council members -- Russia and China -- about tightening economic sanctions. Administration officials pointed with satisfaction at a sharply worded Russian statement Friday that Iran "must cooperate with this investigation."
Obama's words Friday were less dramatic than Brown's or Sarkozy's. "We have offered Iran a clear path toward greater international integration if it lives up to its obligations, and that offer stands," the U.S. president said, "but the Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law."
But Obama was stern-faced and grim, and the rapidly escalating confrontation provided him with a fresh opportunity to project toughness and success on the world stage.
Obama's detractors have long called him naive for his willingness to engage diplomatically the nation's adversaries, including Iran. Republicans say his decision to change the deployment of a missile shield for Eastern Europe demonstrates weakness, and critics have chastised him for taking time to weigh a decision on sending additional troops to Afghanistan.
The announcement also provided a boost for the CIA at a time when the agency is facing harsh attacks -- and possible prosecution -- for detainee interrogations. In a statement on the Iranian revelations, CIA Director Leon Panetta said, "We gave our government the information and insights it needed. . . . Most intelligence successes never become public." He added: "This one has."
As Obama and Ahmadinejad continued to trade challenges and barbs in public appearances, senior administration and intelligence officials, authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity, told a tale that mixed elements of high-stakes diplomacy and a spy novel.
It began in 2002 with revelations that Iran was building an underground enrichment facility in Natanz. The United States said the site was designed to provide fuel for nuclear weapons, which Iran denied. Years of sparring over IAEA inspections of the facility and Iran's insistence that its output would be used only for nuclear power led finally to the establishment of international safeguards over the plant. The world's established nuclear powers, with varying degrees of commitment, continued to push Iran to provide more access and information.
The United States, even as it acknowledged in a December 2007 intelligence estimate that Iran had stopped a separate program to build a nuclear device, insisted that Tehran was continuing efforts to produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. According to intelligence officials who briefed reporters Friday, they finally found signs of additional enrichment efforts on a base belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guard Corp outside Qom, a city in north-central Iran and a center of Shiite Muslim scholarship and education.
As construction in deep tunnels continued, U.S. intelligence agencies began to exchange information with their French and British counterparts, and "we all became increasingly confident that the purpose of the facility was uranium enrichment," one official said. The officials provided few details about how they gathered information, saying only that "we have excellent access and multiple, independent sources of information that allow us to corroborate."
Their determination of its purpose was largely inductive, officials explained, based on what one called a "detailed understanding of the design of the facility," and because its 3,000 centrifuges were too few to supply "regular fuel reloads" for a nuclear power plant. Iranian officials have pointed to the Natanz facility's size -- it is designed to accommodate 54,000 centrifuges -- as evidence that the facility is intended to produce fuel for power generation.
Most significant, U.S. officials said, were Iranian efforts to conceal the site near Qom. "During the course of this year, the confidence of our team and the intelligence services increased with respect to the precise purposes of this site," a senior administration official said.
By summer, they concluded that the facility would become operational in 2010. An offer by the P5-plus-one negotiators to discuss nuclear and other issues with Iran remained on the table, along with a threat to impose more severe economic sanctions. In July, Obama and other leaders agreed to "take stock" of the situation by the end of September. The United States, Britain and France did not share their information on the enrichment facility with Russia and China.
Against this backdrop, Obama directed intelligence officials to compile what they knew about the facility into a detailed briefing. "He had in mind the possibility that we would be talking to the Iranians," a senior official said, "and it was important that the talks be real. In the context of negotiations, we would present it to them directly. If there were no negotiations . . . it would have further cemented" an international consensus to take stronger action against Iran.
Officials said they also thought that years of harsh rhetoric and charges against Iran by the Bush administration had lacked specificity and engendered doubts, particularly among allies in Europe. "We wanted to be in a position where we got it right," an official said.
In early September, Iran suddenly announced its acceptance of the offer to negotiate, and the Oct. 1 meeting was set. Around the same time, U.S. officials learned that Iran was aware that its security had been breached. That knowledge, U.S. officials said, led directly to Iran's Monday letter to the IAEA, accompanied by an Iranian assertion that it was complying with IAEA rules requiring notification six months before the plant becomes operational.
The administration received word of the letter on Tuesday in New York, along with the IAEA's assurance that Iran's notification had been due years earlier, before construction started.
In quick succession, senior intelligence officials were dispatched to Vienna to "fill in the blanks" for the IAEA between Iran's missive and the evidence they had compiled, an official said. On Wednesday, Obama briefed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Detailed intelligence reports were delivered to the Russian and Chinese governments on Thursday, as administration officials in Washington briefed House and Senate leaders.
Shear reported from Pittsburgh. Staff writers Joby Warrick in Cairo and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.