U.S., Allies Say Iran Has Secret Nuclear Facility
Britain, France Join in Demanding That Tehran Allow Inspections; Ahmadinejad Disputes Charge
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.