Charges by U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of France and Britain Friday that Iran is building a secret underground plant to enrich uranium appear certain to heighten tensions just days before critical talks between Tehran and its three accusers, as well as Germany, China and Russia.
The charges, which were issued at a previously unscheduled press conference at the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Pittsburgh, are also certain to bolster longstanding calls by Israel and right-wing hawks here to immediately impose "crippling sanctions" against Tehran, even as the Obama administration begins to formally engage it at talks set to begin Oct 1.
"The U.S. and other countries must immediately impose crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, including cutting off Iran’s imports of gasoline," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The world cannot stand by and watch the nightmare of a nuclear-armed Iran become reality."
Even the traditionally dovish chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, while asserting his continued support for diplomatic engagement with Iran, insisted that "now is the time to supplement engagement with more robust international sanctions."
Pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear program, he said, should be escalated in light of what he called "Iran’s continuing deception" about its nuclear activities.
For its part, Tehran denied that it had misled the international community about the construction of the new facility near Qum to enrich uranium similar in design to its Natanz plant. The latter has been subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since its existence was publicly exposed by an Iraqi-based anti-government group in 2002.
Tehran said it had sent a letter to the IAEA informing it of what it called a "pilot fuel enrichment plant" Sep. 21.
A U.S. official, who briefed the press on background in Pittsburgh Friday, argued, however, that Iran sent the letter only because it had "learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised".
In an interview Thursday with Time magazine in New York City, where he has been attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran was in full compliance with IAEA rules.
"If I were Obama’s adviser, I would definitely advise him to refrain from making this statement because it is definitely a mistake," he said.
In Vienna, the IAEA’s press office confirmed receipt of the letter which, according to a spokesman, had also insisted that no nuclear material had yet been introduced into the new plant.
Under the basic Safeguards Agreement of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory, member states are required to declare their nuclear facilities and designs at least 180 days before introducing nuclear materials there.
In his remarks, Obama said western intelligence agencies had been tracking construction of the plant for "several years" and that "its size and configuration… [are] inconsistent with a peaceful program"
"Iran’s decision to build yet another nuclear facility without notifying the IAEA represents a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime," he said, noting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who claimed to have a scheduling conflict, "wished to associate herself with his remarks".
"We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran to address the nuclear issue through the P5-plus-1 [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany] negotiations," Obama said in reference to the Oct. 1 meeting.
"At that meeting, Iran must be prepared to cooperate fully and comprehensively with the IAEA to take concrete steps to create confidence and transparency in its nuclear program and to demonstrate that it is committed to establishing its peaceful intentions through meaningful dialogue and concrete actions," he added.
One U.S. official who later briefed the press said intelligence officials from Washington, Paris, and London had briefed the IAEA about the plant Thursday. "And the IAEA, I’m happy to say, is following up very vigorously," he added. For its part, the IAEA said it had requested Tehran to "provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible".
The official insisted that an additional protocol of the safeguards agreement between Iran and the IAEA that Tehran voluntarily accepted in 2003 required it "to declare nuclear facilities as soon as they begin construction".
According to the official, construction on the new facility began before March 2007 when he said Tehran unilaterally renounced its acceptance and that, in any case, the IAEA did not consider the renunciation valid.
"So clearly this is inconsistent… obviously a violation of their safeguards agreement," the official concluded.
Tehran has claimed that the additional protocol, which was never ratified by its parliament, ceased to be binding on it as of October 2005, when it first announced its withdrawal. Diplomatic sources cited by the BBC Friday said work on the plant began in earnest in 2006.
The U.S. official said Washington was sharing the "very sensitive intelligence information" collected to date with both Russia and China in order to gain their support for international sanctions in the event that the negotiation that begin next week do not quickly bear fruit.
While Obama himself did not himself threaten sanctions against Tehran, both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown did so explicitly.
"We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the motors are running," the French president said in an apparent reference to Iran’s continued defiance of Security Council resolutions that it halt its uranium enrichment activities at Natanz. "If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken."
"Confronted by the serial deception of many years, the international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand," Brown added. "And I say on behalf of the United Kingdom today, we will not let this matter rest. And we are prepared to implement further and more stringent sanctions."
At the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week, Obama had lobbied both Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao – whose governments have previously expressed strong skepticism about the desirability of increased sanctions against Iran — for support for a hard line at next week’s talks with Tehran.
The Russian leader was more responsive than in the past when it has all but ruled out additional sanctions against Tehran. China reportedly remains opposed, but one of the briefing officials Friday said "we should stay tuned for the Chinese position in the coming days now that they are aware of this new information."
"This gives the United States and its partners a stronger hand in the negotiations, [as] Iran is looking very embarrassed right now," according to Michael Levi, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
He added that it also puts Obama in a "bit of a tricky position because this is another talking point for people who say that Iran is incorrigible and that Obama is wasting his time talking to them."
But Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, said Friday’s move may reduce the chances of confrontation, if only because it may change Iran’s own calculations by demonstrating "the quality of Western intelligence and the difficulty of deception and denial…"
"The timing of the announcement, immediately following the consultations at the U.N. and the G20 and just before the [Oct. 1] meetings, makes it seem extremely likely that that the Obama administration has been waiting for just the right moment to play this card," he wrote on his blog on foreignpolicy.com.
"Now they have. It strengthens the P5+1 bargaining position ahead of October 1, changes Iranian calculations, and lays the foundations for a more serious kind of engagement," he added.
(Inter Press Service)