Iran's secret uranium site raises stakes for meeting with West

Revelations about the Qom facility could give the US and its partners a stronger hand in dealing with Ahmadinejad. But experts say it's no alternative for sanctions.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A view of what is believed to be a uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, Iran, is seen in this satellite photograph released September 25, 2009.
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The disclosure of a new, clandestine Iranian site for the enrichment of uranium may significantly raise the stakes for a scheduled Oct. 1 meeting between Iranian and Western negotiators on the nuclear issue.

It's possible that revelations about the site, dug into a mountain near the city of Qom, will give the US and its partners a stronger hand as they press Iran to prove its nuclear program is peaceful, and to eventually agree to suspend enrichment activities.

But the existence of the site also makes clearer the implications of failure in the long US push to rein in Iran's program via diplomatic means. Continued engagement with Tehran may be well and good, but it should not be considered an alternative to sanctions, according to Michael Levi, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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"If Iran is up to no good, the pressure has to be ratcheted up even as we are talking to them," said Mr. Levi in an analysis of the situation published Friday.

G20 summit overshadowed

The public announcement of the existence of the Qom facility by President Obama, together with the leaders of Britain and France, threatened to overshadow other developments at the G20 summit of developed nations, meeting in Pittsburgh.

The US and its allies have known about Qom for some time, said senior administration officials who briefed reporters on condition their names not be disclosed.

They went public with their knowledge only after they discovered that Iran knew they knew, and was itself preemptively going to reveal the site's existence to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.

The site is smaller than Iran's existing Natanz enrichment facility, said officials. It has room for about 3,000 calutrons – tall tubes of metal that spin at high speed to separate uranium gas into its component isotopes.

That is not a big enough array to be useful in terms of producing low-enriched uranium for a nuclear power plant, said administration officials. They said it is just the right size for producing, annually, enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb, or perhaps two.

IAEA inspections more likely

Now that the site is known, according to US officials, Iran will probably be forced to accept IAEA inspections there, making it more difficult for it to develop nuclear weapons.

"So this is a victory, in terms of making it more difficult for them to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, just as the discovery of Natanz and the fact they were forced to put that under inspection set the program back," said a senior administration official.

The existence of the Natanz plant was publicly revealed in 2002 by an Iranian dissident group.

At a news conference in New York, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Qom site had not yet become operational, and thus Iran was not yet required to report its existence to the IAEA.

He said the US would regret accusing Iran of trying to hide the plant, and he appeared to suggest that the IAEA is in fact welcome to inspect it.

"We don't have any problems with inspection of the facility," said Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The US, France, and Britain have long wanted to put more stringent UN sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt enrichment activity.

Russia hardens position

The other permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China, have been more reluctant to go along. But the Qom site surprise seems to have hardened at least Moscow's position.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in Pittsburgh with other world leaders, said the disclosures are "a source of serious concern."

China's reaction was less immediately apparent. One proposed sanction would be a ban on export of refined petroleum products to Iran. Chinese firms now account for a significant portion of Iran's gasoline and diesel fuel.

While the Qom revelations may give the US and its allies more leverage, they also could put more pressure on the Obama administration to prove that its approach to Tehran is the correct one.

"Politically, it ... puts the United States 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," said Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran's secret nuclear facility

Ahead of G20 meetings on Friday, President Obama said the nuclear facility underscores Iran's 'continued unwillingness to meet its obligations' under international agreements.

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