Friday, September 25, 2009

US, UK, French heads demand Iran nuke site openedUS, UK, French heads demand Iran nuke site opened

PITTSBURGH – President Barack Obama and the leaders of France and Britain declared Friday that the revelation of a previously secret Iranian nuclear facility puts heavy new pressure on Tehran to quickly disclose all its nuclear efforts — including any moves toward weapons development — "or be held accountable."

A defiant Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retorted that his nation was keeping nothing from international inspectors and needn't "inform Mr. Obama's administration of every facility that we have."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Iran has until December to comply or face new sanctions. Before that, on Oct. 1, the Iranians are to meet with the U.S. and five other major powers to discuss a range of issues including Iran's nuclear program.

"We will not let this matter rest," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who accused Iran of "serial deception."

Said Obama: "The Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law."

Just hours later, the head of Iran's nuclear program suggested U.N. inspectors will be allowed to visit it. Ali Akbar Salehi called the facility "a semi-industrial plant for enriching nuclear fuel" that is not yet complete, but he gave no other details, according to the state news agency IRNA.

Ahmadinejad, in New York for this week's General Assembly meeting, said that pressing his country on the newly disclosed plant "is definitely a mistake." In an interview with Time magazine, he said Iran was not keeping anything from the International Atomic Energy Agency. "We have no secrecy," he said.

Iran kept the facility, 100 miles southwest of Tehran, hidden from weapons inspectors until a letter it sent to the IAEA on Monday.

But the U.S. has known of the facility's existence "for several years" through intelligence developed by U.S., French and British agencies, a senior White House official said. Obama decided to gather allies to talk publicly on Friday about their view of the project so as not to let Iran have the only word, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to let the statements from Obama and the leaders remain the focus.

The plant would be about the right size to enrich enough uranium to produce one or two bombs a year, but inspectors must get inside to know what is actually going on, the official said.

The three leaders, in their dramatic joint statement that overshadowed the G-20 economic summit here, hoped the disclosure would increase pressure on the global community to impose new sanctions on Iran if it refuses to stop its nuclear program.

Beyond sanctions, the leaders' options are limited and perilous; military action by the United States or an ally such as Israel could set off a dangerous chain of events in the Islamic world. In addition, Iran's facilities are spread around and well-hidden, making an effective military response logistically difficult.

The leaders did not mention military force. But Sarkozy said ominously, "Everything, everything must be put on the table now. We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the motors are running."

Germany is one of the six powers meeting with Iran next week, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the revelation "a grave development."

She told reporters that Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States had consulted on the issue and agreed to a joint response. Merkel spoke separately from her counterparts because she had been in an already-scheduled meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

She said "we will see" about the reactions of Russia and China, which also are part of the group of six but always more reluctant to take a firm line on Iran.

Earlier this week, Medvedev opened the door to backing potential new sanctions against Iran, speaking just days after Obama's decision to scale back a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe that Russia strongly opposed. But it's unclear if that will translate into action.

Medvedev's spokeswoman said Friday that the developments "cannot but disturb us." Natalya Timakova said Medvedev would talk later in Pittsburgh on it, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass.

The senior administration official said Obama told Medvedev about the Iranian facility during their meeting this week in New York. The Chinese are "just absorbing these revelations," the official said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Beijing wants the matter settled through negotiations.

"Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow," Obama said.

Sarkozy and Brown struck an even more defiant tone. "The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand," Brown said.

Ahmadinejad made no mention of the facility while attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week. But Iran denies that it is enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb — as the West suspects — and says it is only doing so for energy purposes.

However, Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze enrichment at what had been its single publicly known enrichment plant, which is being monitored by the IAEA.

Officials said Iran's letter to the IAEA contained no details about the location of the second facility, such as when — or if — it had started operations or the type and number of centrifuges it was running.

But one of the officials, who had access to a review of Western intelligence on the issue, said it was underground about 100 miles southwest of Tehran and is the site of 3,000 centrifuges that. It is not yet operational but the U.S. believes it will be by next year, said a U.S. counterproliferation official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

U.S. intelligence believes the facility is on a military base controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, according to a document that the Obama administration sent to U.S. lawmakers. It was provided to The Association Press by an official on condition of anonymity because, though unclassified, it was deemed confidential. The military connection could undermine Iran's contention that the plant was designed for civilian purposes.

"The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program," Obama told reporters.

The U.S., British and French officials provided detailed information to the IAEA on Thursday, Obama said.

An August IAEA report said Iran had set up more than 8,000 centrifuges to produce enriched uranium at the first facility, also underground and located outside the southern city of Natanz. The report said that only about 4,600 centrifuges were fully active.

Showdown on Iran's nuclear program enters endgame

You wouldn't know it from witnessing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all cocky and self-confident, as he gave a trademark bellicose speech to the United Nations this week, blaming the world's ills on Zionism, capitalism and so on. But his nation is facing international crunch time over its nuclear weapons program.

Next week, diplomats from all U.N. Security Council countries plus Germany are scheduled to sit down with Iran's chief negotiator in Geneva to see whether a deal on Iran's nuclear ambitions is possible. This will be a serious final chance as the long-simmering confrontation enters a dangerous endgame.

Ahmadinejad's recent rants that Israel's days are numbered and that the Holocaust was a "lie" only make him more impossible to believe about anything – and make it more likely that Israel will pre-emptively attack Iran's nuclear facilities if diplomatic efforts show little progress. Brandishing original construction plans for the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. Thursday that "the most urgent challenge facing this body today is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

An Israeli strike should be a last resort: It could trigger a huge run-up in oil prices, invite retaliation against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and further destabilize the already volatile Middle East. Given that Iran has built many of its facilities deep underground, an airstrike might not even succeed.

The best hope of preventing this scenario is tough international sanctions against the Iranian regime, which would be a departure from recent years when the Europeans tentatively felt out Iran as the U.S. refused to negotiate – leaving plenty of room for Iran to do its usual ducking, weaving and stalling for time.

Unlike in the past, the Security Council is closing ranks on the idea of cutting off trade to Iran of the refined oil that it depends on, if Iran doesn't stop enriching uranium by year's end. That development is crucial, because Russia and China have previously refused to endorse sanctions. Now, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says they might be inevitable. China, which trades with Iran, has been more equivocal but rarely vetoes a U.N. resolution alone.

For all of Ahmadinejad's U.N. bluster, he's dealing from a position of weakness. His hold on power at home is tenuous; his credibility abroad is negligible. Sanctions would come at a particularly perilous time for Iran's hard-line clerics, who have the final say in all matters, including the nuclear program. They still face political unrest and sporadic street protests over June's contested presidential election. With their economy in dire straits and unemployment high, sanctions on gasoline supplies could provide fresh encouragement to the opposition.

At the same time, U.S. and Russian officials should back off the assurances they have been giving Iran that Israel won't attempt to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. Keeping the military option on the table gives the Iranians more, not less, incentive to strike a deal.