President Obama and the leaders of Britain and France will accuse Iran Friday of building a secret underground plant to manufacture nuclear fuel, saying the country has hidden the covert operation from international weapons inspectors for years, according to senior administration officials.
The revelation, which the three leaders will make before the opening of the Group of 20 economic summit here, appears bound to add urgency to the diplomatic confrontation with Iran over its suspected ambitions to build a nuclear weapons capacity. Mr. Obama, along with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, will demand that Iran allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct an immediate inspection of the facility, which is said to be 100 miles southwest of Tehran.
American officials said that they had been tracking the covert project for years, but that Mr. Obama decided to make public the American findings after Iran discovered, in recent weeks, that Western intelligence agencies had breached the secrecy surrounding the project. On Monday, Iran wrote a brief, cryptic letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying that it now had a “pilot plant” under construction, whose existence it had never before revealed.
American officials, citing the sensitivity of their intelligence gathering on Iran, declined to say what kind of intelligence break — human spies, computer or telephone intercepts or overhead photography — led to their discovery. But parts of the computer networks belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were pierced in 2007, leading to the intelligence finding that that Iranian engineers, working under Mohsen Fakrizadeh, had tried to design a nuclear weapon before the effort ended in 2003. Israel and some European intelligence agencies argue that the work resumed later.
The enrichment program appears to run on a separate track from the weapons design program, in part because the Iranians claim the enrichment is solely for the purpose of producing fuel for nuclear power plants. To construct centrifuges, Iran has had to buy specialty parts abroad, and at times in the past, American, German and Israeli intelligence agencies have intercepted shipments, in one case diverting crucial parts to American weapons labs before sending them on to Iran. It is very possible that infiltration of the supply network contributed to the discovery in Qum.
Of course it has been long suspected that the Iranians did not give up entirely upon their nuclear program after the discovery of the facility at Nantaz. But until this discovery, there was little clue as to where the program might be hidden or what it might be capable of. Apparently this facility was not yet complete, though it appears certainly to exist for the purpose of creating enough fissile material for a bomb. Also, another nugget from the article regarding Russia:
Mr. Obama had, by that point, made a giant step toward getting Russia more amenable to the idea of sanctions against Iran — something Moscow does not like — by announcing last week that he was replacing President George W. Bush’s missile defense with a version less threatening to Moscow. That issue, one administration official said, completely changed the dynamic during Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Medvedev.
While it is unclear whether Mr. Obama briefed Mr. Medvedev about the Qum facility during that meeting at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the two leaders nonetheless emerged with Mr. Medvedev promising, for the first time publicly, that Russia would be amenable to tougher sanctions.
And on Thursday, in Pittsburgh, Mr. Medvedev reiterated his stance. “When all instruments have been used and failed, one can use international legal sanctions,” Mr. Medvedev told students at the University of Pittsburgh. “I think we should continue to promote positive incentives for Iran and at the same time push it to make all its programs transparent and open. Should we fail in that case, we’ll consider other options.”
Certainly, the recent crackdown on Iranian dissidents in the wake of fraudulent elections hasn't helped the Iranian regime's standing in the world either. With Russia on the board, the possibility of much tougher sanctions appears very much more certain now.