Iran Pressured Over New Plant

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009

At talks scheduled for Thursday in Geneva with Iran, the United States and five other major powers will demand immediate and unfettered access to the newly exposed nuclear facility in Iran, including access to people and documents involved in its construction, and they will insist that Tehran abide by international rules to reveal such projects before construction begins, Obama administration officials said Saturday.

Diplomats will also insist that Iran undertake confidence-building measures, including answering questions about suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons and accepting a timetable for serious negotiations. Officials said that there is no stated deadline, but that if Tehran does not respond seriously by year's end, the United States and its partners could begin to push for crippling sanctions targeting Iran's economic and financial links to the world.

In the wake of the facility's discovery near the holy city of Qom, "it is now a choice for Iran, and the choice became starker," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. As an inducement for cooperation, the United States and other powers have offered economic and diplomatic incentives if Iran reins in its nuclear ambitions.

Iranian officials declared Saturday that they notified the International Atomic Energy Agency about the facility in a timely fashion and that IAEA inspectors are welcome to visit it, though they did not say when, or whether they will be able to set up monitoring equipment. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, denounced the reaction from the United States and other Western powers. "Their embarrassing reaction and their unbalanced response has shocked us," he told state television.

In his weekly radio address, President Obama emphasized the importance of the showdown at Geneva's historic Hotel De Ville, which will also include diplomats from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China -- and will mark the first diplomatic encounter between Iran and the Obama administration.

"This is a serious challenge to the global nonproliferation regime and continues a disturbing pattern of Iranian evasion," Obama said. "That is why international negotiations with Iran scheduled for October 1st now take on added urgency."

"We are hopeful that, in preparing for the meeting on October 1st, Iran comes and shares with all of us what they are willing to do, and gives us a timetable on which they are willing to proceed," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on Saturday after meeting with Arab foreign ministers on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

U.S. officials seriously considered confronting Iran with evidence of the new site during the Geneva talks before shifting course and deciding to make the information public on Friday, just days after Iran sent a cryptic note to the IAEA about a "pilot" plant. Now, U.S. officials say, they hope the revelation puts Iran on the defensive at the meeting.

Iran, which as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has a right to enrich uranium, has already signaled that it intends to dismiss questions about the Qom facility as a legalistic dispute of little importance. Salehi said that it was hidden to protect it from possible attacks and that Iran had actually been overly cautious within the framework of the IAEA rules. "We have to inform the agency of the building of nuclear facilities 180 days before insertion of nuclear fuel, but we informed them even sooner," he said.

U.S. and U.N. officials sharply disputed such claims. In 2003, Iran signed an amended rule under the nonproliferation treaty that required nations to reveal any new facilities to the IAEA as soon as the decision was made to build them.

The amendment, called "Code 3.1," was permanently binding. But in March 2007, Iran announced that it was withdrawing unilaterally from the agreement and would instead abide by an earlier version of the treaty, which allowed countries to delay notification until six months before a new plant became operational.

But even under Iran's unorthodox interpretation of the rules, Tehran appears to have crossed the line. According to U.S. officials with access to classified reports, Iran's work on the Qom site began long before March 2007. At the time construction began, Iran knew it was obligated to notify the IAEA immediately about the new project, the sources said.

In any case, the IAEA never accepted Iran's argument that the strict disclosure rules did not apply.

Tehran's concealment of the Qom facility is only the latest chapter in a cat-and-mouse game with Western intelligence agencies that has continued for nearly two decades. Iran has repeatedly insisted it has no intention of building a nuclear weapon, though it has also ignored three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it halt uranium enrichment until questions about its long-secret program are addressed.

The new enrichment plant, inside a heavily guarded, underground facility belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guard, is especially disturbing to U.S. intelligence analysts because it appears designed for 3,000 centrifuges, making it nearly useless as an industrial-scale facility for providing reactor fuel. While there may be other hidden facilities, "this is the facility where we have been concentrating our focus," the senior administration official said.

Administration officials said that there were many levels of sanctions under consideration, including those approved by the Security Council, sanctions imposed by like-minded countries and unilateral steps that could be taken by the Treasury Department.

Special correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and staff writer Joby Warrick in Cairo contributed to this report.

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