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US sees nuclear revelations from Iran as source of leverage

As the United States along with Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany prepare for talks with Iran in Geneva later this week, news of the discovery of a second and previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility under construction, concealed inside a mountain, led a US official to say: "Everybody's been asking, 'Where's our leverage?' Well, now we just got that leverage."

As the United States along with Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany prepare for talks with Iran in Geneva later this week, news of the discovery of a second and previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility under construction, concealed inside a mountain, led a US official to say: "Everybody's been asking, 'Where's our leverage?' Well, now we just got that leverage." "Late Thursday night, two hours after it sent out President Barack Obama's Friday schedule, the White House told reporters it was adding another event - a statement that he would give in the morning. Amid all the hoopla of the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, there was scant indication the announcement would be dramatic," reported Laura Rozen for Politico. "But behind the scenes, the Obama administration was furiously preparing for a major public intelligence disclosure that it had not planned to make: that the US had known for years about a previously undisclosed clandestine nuclear enrichment facility Iran has been building since 2005 in a mountain near Qom. "Interviews with administration and international officials, diplomats, non-proliferation and Iran experts suggest the administration had no plans to announce its suspicions before beginning international talks with Iran next week. But its hand was forced after learning some time during the week of a letter Iran had sent the UN nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna acknowledging construction of a previously undisclosed facility." The Washington Post said: "The disclosure of a second uranium enrichment site in Iran has led the Obama administration to shift the emphasis in its dealings with the Islamic republic - away from engagement and toward building an international consensus for sterner action against Tehran. "The effort to directly engage Iran was a hallmark of the early months of the administration, with President Obama offering a televised greeting in honour of the Persian New Year and sending private letters to the country's supreme leader. But the gestures went largely unreciprocated. Now, while not shutting the door on engagement entirely, the United States and its allies plan to forcefully press the case that Tehran has been caught, red-handed, in yet another violation of international rules. "Officials hope that the pressure - to be applied at previously scheduled talks Thursday in Geneva - will force Iran into a broader discussion about its programme and then into a serious set of negotiations." The New York Times reported: "Administration officials said that Mr Obama had two goals in going public: to directly confront Iran with the evidence, and to persuade wavering nations to take a hard line on Iran. "In fact, the makings of the administration's strategy was hatched months before, when the White House first came to believe that the complex, built into a mountain on property near Qom controlled by Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, might be a part of the nuclear program. Over time, the file that intelligence officials accumulated on the facility developed as a cudgel, a way to win over wary allies and test if the Iranians were being truthful in their disclosures. "Senior intelligence officials said Friday that several years ago American intelligence agencies under the administration of George W Bush discovered the suspicious site. The site was one of Iran's most closely guarded secrets, the officials said, known only by senior members of Iran's nuclear establishment. The officials said that housing the complex on the base gave it an extra layer of security. "Mr Obama was first told about the existence of the covert site during his transition period in late 2008, White House officials said, after he had been elected but before he was inaugurated. But it was not until earlier this year that American spy agencies detected the movement of sensitive equipment into the facility - a sign, they believed, that whatever work was involved was nearing its final stages. "American officials said Friday that the facility could have been fully operational by next year, with up to 3,000 centrifuges capable of producing one weapon's worth of highly enriched nuclear material per year." The Daily Telegraph noted: "The site, north east of Qom, off the Qom to Aliabad highway is a former missile site operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. "Building work 'started in earnest' in the middle of 2006, sources said, with workers tunneling into the side of a mountain to excavate a space big enough for around 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium. "While that may sound large, sources say the amount produced would be 'insufficient for a civilian fuel reactor,' particularly using the old P1 centrifuges based on a 1970s design developed by the Pakistani programme run by AQ Khan. "Intelligence also suggests that the site is 'not yet operational'." The Washington Post said: "The head of Iran's nuclear program said he was 'shocked' by the West's angry reaction to news that his country is opening a second uranium enrichment facility, which he said was disclosed a year earlier than required by the UN nuclear watchdog, state television reported Saturday. "Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said the facility 60 miles south of Tehran would be completed within 'a year and a half to two years,' the Arabic language state news channel Al Alam quoted him as saying. "He stressed that the facility, like other declared nuclear sites in the country, would be open to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency." The New York Times said: "So far, the administration has not laid out, in public, the extent of the demands it will put on the table on Thursday, when Iranian representatives are scheduled to meet in Europe with the Western powers. It will mark the first time in 30 years that the United States will join the talks as a full, direct participant, fulfilling President Obama's campaign pledge for 'full engagement' with Tehran. "But interviews over the past three days with administration officials, senior intelligence officials and international nuclear experts suggest near-unanimity that disclosure of the covert facility at an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base is a potential turning point. "It is providing unprecedented leverage, they said, to demands for access to other sites that have long been off limits, and for answers to hundreds of outstanding questions. The officials say that if Iran resisted, the United States would seek tough new sanctions, at a time when the government in Tehran has been weakened by internal strife." Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported: "Iraq's president said new sanctions against Iran won't work and warned Saturday that Iraq will never allow Israel or any other country to use its airspace to carry out an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. "President Jalal Talabani said the six major powers dealing with the Iran nuclear issue - the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - should conduct 'a real negotiation' with Iran and guarantee Tehran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. " 'Perhaps it will work - perhaps,' he told a news conference. "Iran and Iraq fought a war from 1980-88, but relations between the two Shiite majority countries have improved following the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the election of a Shiite-led government in Iraq. "Talibani was asked whether Iraq believes the Iranian government when it says it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons, especially in light of this week's revelation of a new and still unfinished Iranian uranium enrichment facility. " 'I think the Iranian leadership explained that the bomb is against Islam because it's killing innocent people,' he said. 'So they said openly that they are not for having the bomb but only the use of technology.' "

pwoodward@thenational.ae

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