PITTSBURGH — President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain on Friday blasted Iran’s construction of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility and demanded that Tehran immediately fulfill its obligations under international law or risk the imposition of harsh new sanctions.
"Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow," Obama said, detailing how the facility at Qom had been under construction for years without being disclosed, as required, to the International Atomic Energy Association. "International law is not an empty promise."British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused Iran of "serial deception" that he said "will shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve."
"We will not let this matter rest," Brown said. " ... Iran must abandon any military ambitions for its nuclear programs."
Iran acknowledged the existence of the facility for the first time on Monday, in a letter to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. The letter said "a new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country," said Marc Vidricaire, a spokesman for the watchdog agency. "The letter stated that the enrichment level would be up to 5 percent."
Vidricaire said the agency responded by asking Iran to quickly provide more specifics about the facility — "to assess safeguards verification requirements." He said Iran told the IAEA "that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility."
White House officials said Western intelligence agencies have been tracking the facility for years. Obama said officials from the United States, France and Britain briefed the IAEA in Vienna on Thursday on what they knew about the facility. The three heads of state decided to publicly disclose the existence of the facility after learning that Iran had become aware the site was no longer a secret.
Iran’s report of the facility’s existence — and Obama’s plans to accuse Tehran of hiding it — were first reported Friday by the New York Times.Obama, Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke in advance of the opening of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Their remarks came a day after Obama chaired a United Nations Security Council session on halting the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Although Obama referred to the nuclear ambitions of both Iran and North Korea during the Security Council session, diplomatic maneuvering kept any mention of the two countries out of a resolution that the council unanimously approved. The omission prompted passionate criticism from Sarkozy."How, before the eyes of the world, could we justify meeting without tackling them?" Sarkozy said. "We live in the real world, not a virtual world. And the real world expects us to take decisions."
On Friday, he said Iran "is taking the international community on a dangerous path ... Everything, everything, must be put on the table now. We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the motors are running."
Both Sarkozy and Brown said that if Iran does not come into compliance by December, it risks the imposition of stringent international sanctions. Obama, who spoke in more measured terms, did not mention sanctions specifically.
The global standoff over Iran’s nuclear program began in 2002 with the discovery of two large nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak, with the Natanz facility devoted to uranium enrichment. U.S. intelligence had secretly provided the geographical coordinates of the facilities to the IAEA three months before an Iranian exile group drew attention to the facilities at an August news conference in Washington.
The public exposure led to demands that IAEA inspect the facilities, which it did in 2003, and ultimately to Iran’s admission that it had kept its nuclear program hidden for 18 years in violation of an international treaty.
A key question regarding the Qom site is whether Iran violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regarding when it has to inform international authorities of a new nuclear facility. Under the original treaty, such declarations were not required until six months before fuel was introduced into the facility.
In 1992, however, the IAEA board determined that six months was not enough time to organize required inspections, and amended the rule to require nations to inform it at the time the initial decision was made to build a facility, before construction began. The amendment, called "Code 3.1," was mandatory; Iran and all other signatories agreed to it.
But in 2006, angered over an IAEA decision to refer its case to the U.N. Security Council, Iran said its parliament had decided it would revert to the non-amended treaty and six-month notification.
The IAEA took the position that no country could legally revert to the old system, and that Iran and all countries were bound by the new rule."This is not the first time that Iran has concealed information about its nuclear program," Obama said Friday morning. "The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."
Obama and other Western leaders have been trying to increase pressure on Iran to disclose more about its nuclear ambitions in advance of international talks next week about Iran’s nuclear program. On Oct. 1, a senior Iranian diplomat will meet counterparts from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in Geneva.
"We expect a serious response from Iran," during the talks, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said this week in a statement approved by the six nations. If such a response is not forthcoming, he said, the six nations will decide on "next steps."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview this week that he is willing to have Iran’s nuclear experts meet with scientists from the United States and other world powers as a confidence-building measure.
Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran is using nuclear technology only for energy and medical purposes and has no interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. He said he wants to buy enriched uranium from the United States that would be used for medical purposes.
The nuclear material Iran is now producing is 3 percent to 5 percent enriched and suitable only for energy purposes. Nuclear material for medical purposes must be 20 percent enriched — purchasing such material would require a waiver of international sanctions. While weapons-grade material is more than 90 percent enriched, making material for the medical reactor could put Iran on the next step to reaching that level.
In Tehran Friday, Iranian state television revealed the Sept. 21 letter on its Arabic language news channel, Al-Alam, which is often used to transmit important official Iranian foreign policy decisions. The report quoted an unnamed source who described the letter as further evidence of Tehran’s transparency in dealing with the IAEA about its nuclear program. It repeated Iran’s long-held assertion that it is acquiring nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
Wilgoren reported from Washington. Staff writer Glenn Kessler and Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink contributed to this report from Tehran.