To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
26 Sep 2009 06:41
Bolstered by other world powers, US President Barack Obama demanded on Friday that Iran come clean about its nuclear programme or face “sanctions that have bite” after the disclosure of a secret uranium enrichment plant.
Issuing a stern warning to Iran at the end of a Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, Obama pointedly declined to rule out the military option in dealing with the bitter stand-off with Tehran but insisted he preferred to resolve it diplomatically.
Obama stood earlier in the day with the leaders of Britain and France in accusing Iran of working in secret for several years to build a covert underground plant for enriching uranium that could be used for developing nuclear weapons.
“The international community has spoken. It is now up to Iran to respond,” Obama said at a closing news conference.
The fresh disclosure of the scope of Iran’s disputed nuclear programme added a new sense of urgency to Tehran’s much-anticipated talks with the United States and five other powers on October 1 in Geneva.
Iran has maintained its nuclear programme is strictly for peaceful electricity generation.
US officials said Iran started building the covert plant as an alternate site for possible weapons development since the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scrutiny at its Natanz facility made it difficult to conduct such activities there.
A defiant Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted the facility near the holy city of Qom was legal and open for inspection by the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog.
He said the plant was 18 months from starting operations and Western powers would regret accusing Iran of hiding it.
“It’s not a secret site,” Ahmadinejad told a news conference in New York where he was attending the UN General Assembly.
Ahmadinejad said Israel, Iran’s arch-foe in the region, “wouldn’t dare to attack” and that Iranians were able to defend themselves.
Onus on Iran
Iran acknowledged the existence of the facility for the first time on Monday in a letter to the IAEA, a belated disclosure US officials said was meant to beat Western governments to the punch.
Obama said the United States and its allies were “absolutely” confident of their intelligence on the clandestine nuclear site.
Obama put the onus on Iran to address international concerns in next week’s talks.
“They are going to have to come clean and they are going to have to make a choice” between isolation and giving up nuclear weapons ambitions,” he said.
“When we find that diplomacy does not work, we will be in a much stronger position to, for example, apply sanctions that have bite.”
Britain, France and Germany also raised the specter of tough new sanctions and Russia—previously reluctant to go along with further penalties—showed greater willingness to consider such action.
China expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear activities and urged Tehran to cooperate with the UN inspectors but said it still wanted a negotiated solution.
Western leaders hope the latest development will give them greater leverage with the international community to impose new sanctions on Iran if it remains resistant.
But the diplomatic offensive could also further entrench Tehran’s defiance.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused Iran of “serial deception” in its nuclear programme.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who had softened his opposition to sanctions in talks with Obama in New York this week, agreed Iran was in violation of UN resolutions and called on Tehran to quickly prove its nuclear programme was purely peaceful.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country was “very worried” and that world powers must not shy away from imposing further sanctions on Iran if the talks on October 1 failed.
Committed to engagement
Since taking office in January, Obama has sought to engage Iran diplomatically but has been met mostly with defiance.
After steadily sharpening his tone, he used the world stage at the G20 summit to forge what he called “an unprecedented show of unity” against Iran—something analysts saw as a modest foreign policy success for a president who has enjoyed few so far.
“Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow ... and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world,” Obama said.
The IAEA said earlier on Friday that Iran had just told it of the second uranium enrichment plant under construction.
A senior US official said it appeared the facility was at least a few months from having all centrifuges installed and operable. The nascent plant was believed to be designed for about 3 000 centrifuges for enriching uranium.
US officials said Iran had just learned that US, French and British intelligence were aware of the site, so it divulged its existence to the IAEA because it feared the information would soon be made public.
The IAEA asked Iran to provide access to and information about the plant as soon as possible.
IAEA spokesperson Marc Vidricaire said Iran had stated it intended to enrich uranium at the new plant, like at its Natanz complex that was hidden from the IAEA until 2002, only to the 5% level suitable for power plant fuel.
“The agency also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility,” he said.
Iran is under UN sanctions for refusing to suspend enrichment and denying access the IAEA needs to clarify Western intelligence indications that Iran has geared nuclear research to developing nuclear bombs, not generating electricity.
The head of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference warned the international community “not to make the same mistake” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme as it did with Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which cleared the way for the US invasion in 2003.
“We have to see what are the IAEA reports and evidence,” said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turk who heads the 57-member OIC. - Reuters
Create Account | Lost Your Password?