LONDON // Iran has admitted to building a second underground plant to enrich uranium - the process necessary to make a nuclear bomb. The revelation, which comes just days before international talks meant to dissuade Tehran from its nuclear ambitions, means that Iran could be years closer to producing its own nuclear warheads than anyone thought.
President Barack Obama branded Iran's decision to conceal the construction of the facility as a "direct challenge" to global non-proliferation and a threat to peace in the region. Flanked by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and France's President Nicolas Sarkozy at the opening of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Mr Obama demanded that Iran immediately allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect the plant.
Iran, however, denied it was acting in secrecy. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran had given the IAEA notice about the facility at least a year before it was obliged to do so. Under international regulations, the country only needs to alert the watchdog six months before it introduces nuclear material to the facility. "Instead of six months, we actually informed the agency 18 months ahead of plan. Now is this the right thing to do or the wrong thing? I thought we are supposed to be encouraged for taking this action," Mr Ahmadinejad told reporters.
He also said the West would regret accusing Iran of having a secret site. "They thought they could take the occasion of the UN meeting and the occasion of the people being here in New York to turn sentiment against Iran and failed. They probably thought they had a winning card here and they could kind of make some noise and then start commanding Iran must do this and that. "It's really bad for three heads of state to say something that has no legal foundation."
Iran had acknowledged to the IAEA in a brief letter on Monday that it was constructing a "pilot plant" to enrich uranium but insisted that it was purely for electricity generation purposes. Even then, Tehran was only believed to have admitted that the facility was under construction after government officials learnt a week ago that Mr Obama was to reveal its existence at the Pittsburgh summit. According to a report in The New York Times, the secret facility is being built in a mountainside outside the holy city of Qom, about 130km south-west of Tehran. It will ultimately house 3,000 centrifuges, the machines necessary to enrich uranium.
Mr Obama said that the size and configuration of the new plant were "inconsistent" with Iran's assertions that it was only being built for peaceful purposes. "Iran must comply with UN Security Council resolutions and make clear it is prepared to meet its responsibilities as a member of the community of nations. "Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow, endangering the global non-proliferation regime, denying its own people access to the opportunity they deserve, and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world."
Mr Brown said that news of the secret plant should "shock and anger" the world. He added: "Confronted by [Iran's] serial deception of many years, the international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand." The world needed to see a "step change" from Iran in the coming months, said Mr Sarkozy, describing the latest development as a challenge to the entire international community.
US intelligence agencies are believed to have been monitoring the site for months and, maybe, years, according to some reports, but its existence has never been made public. Iran has previously only admitted to having a nuclear waste disposal site in the area. A diplomatic source in London said yesterday: "This changes the whole debate. It means Iran could have nuclear weapons much sooner than anyone believed and is one of the reasons why Russia is suddenly much more open to the notion of imposing sanctions on Iran."
In the past few days, Iran has again rejected western nations' assertions at the UN that it is covertly developing nuclear weapons, describing such claims as "totally untrue and without any foundation". However, a report from the IAEA in Vienna admitted earlier this month that it could not rule out a military dimension to Iran's nuclear programme. That report was based on the work at the one, known enrichment plant at Natanz, which IAEA inspectors are monitoring. The existence of the Qom site, which Iran acknowledged in a "cryptic" message on Monday to Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, changes the situation dramatically.
Confirming receipt of the letter yesterday, a spokesman for the agency added: "The agency also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility. "In response, the IAEA has requested that Iran provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible." In the letter to the IAEA, the Iranians claimed that the new facility was a "pilot fuel enrichment plant" with an enrichment level up to five per cent, far below that required to make a nuclear warhead. Experts, however, questioned the accuracy of this, as such a level of enrichment was inadequate even for electricity generation. They also pointed out that Iran is producing a new, much more efficient generation of centrifuges for enrichment.
The development means that Iran's representatives will be under incredible pressure when they meet delegates from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in Geneva on Thursday the first direct talks between the US and Iran in 30 years. "It is hard to see how the confirmation of the existence of the plant will not lead to much tougher sanctions being imposed on the Iranians unless they are now prepared to make some truly remarkable concessions," said the source in London.
Last month, the IAEA said that Iran had more than 8,000 centrifuges in the underground facility at Natanz but that only about 4,600 of them were fully active. The ISNA news agency in Iran quoted an unnamed government source as saying that the "second enrichment centre is similar to the Natanz enrichment facility". Iran insists that it has the right to enrich uranium for a nationwide chain of nuclear reactors but the many nations fear that the same enrichment process, when advanced, is aimed at making fissile material for nuclear warheads.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations