PITTSBURGH – Western powers and Russia on Friday turned up the heat on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program after the U.S., France and Britain revealed that the Islamic republic has secretly been building an underground facility that could be used to produce nuclear weapons fuel.
“The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program,” President Barack Obama said in a joint announcement with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh.
Unlike Brown and Sarkozy, Obama didn’t explicitly threaten tougher economic sanctions if Iran continues to reject five U.N. resolutions that require it to suspend uranium enrichment and accept a deal to ensure that its program is for civilian purposes only. However, he made it clear that he remains committed to previous threats to seek harsher measures.
“The Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law,” Obama warned.
Asked if there’s a growing possibility of the use of force, Obama told reporters Friday afternoon that he wasn’t “taking any options off the table.” But, he added: “I will also re-emphasize that my preferred course of action is to resolve this in a diplomatic fashion. It’s up to the Iranians to respond.”
Sarkozy said that additional “sanctions will have to be taken” if “by December there isn’t an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders.” Accusing Iran of “serial deception,” Brown said that Britain is prepared to “implement further and more stringent sanctions.”
Obama, Brown and Sarkozy called on Iran to allow U.N. inspectors into the facility, a demand echoed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who said in a statement that the site “violates decisions of the United Nations Security Council.”
Despite his tough rhetoric, Medvedev said nothing about supporting tougher sanctions.
Responding to the announcement, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters in New York that U.N. inspectors could visit the facility, but he insisted that it was legal under existing agreements with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency.
Not first deception
This is the second time since 2002 that Tehran has been caught hiding major nuclear facilities from international inspectors. Friday’s disclosure intensified a seven-year dispute over its program and raised the stakes for talks Thursday among top diplomats from Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.
Enrichment can produce either low-enriched uranium for power reactors – which Iran has repeatedly asserted is the purpose of its program – or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, which Western powers suspect Tehran of covertly developing with know-how and technology originally bought from a Pakistani-run smuggling ring.
Iran has insisted for years that it’s fully disclosed all its nuclear sites and activities to the IAEA, but its concealment of the new facility appeared to violate the prohibitions on new enrichment activities in the U.N. resolutions. Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran had given adequate notice of the facility to the IAEA, a contention the agency disputed.
At mountain base
The new facility is in a tunnel complex buried in a mountain base of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, about 20 miles north of the holy city of Qom, U.S. intelligence officials said. The officials requested anonymity, as they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
It is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuges, which is too few to produce regular supplies of low-enriched uranium fuel for its civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, these officials said, citing intelligence developed by the U.S., France and Britain. That number, however, is sufficient to produce one weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium a year once the facility begins full-scale operation.
Iran is constructing support buildings, and “intelligence indicates that earlier this year, they began installing infrastructure for centrifuges,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
“We have been aware of it for a number of years,” the official said. “There was dialogue with allies from a very early point, and as intelligence was shared, all became increasingly confident that the purpose of the facility was uranium enrichment.
“We have excellent access. We have multiple independent sources of information that allow us to corroborate the information and we are highly confident in the judgment,” said the official, who declined to elaborate.
A senior Western official, who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, cautioned that U.S. technical experts “haven’t reached any hard and fast conclusions. It could be any number of things … (but) it walks and quacks and looks like a facility that has … (the) probability of military applications.”