PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iran Must Open Secret Nuclear Facility, Obama Says

President Obama speaks as French President Nicolas Sarkozy (center) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown look on during a media briefing on the sidelines of the G-20 meetings Friday in Pittsburgh. The U.S., Britain and France asked the IAEA for immediate access to a newly disclosed Iranian nuclear facility.
Eric Feferberg
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama speaks as French President Nicolas Sarkozy (center) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown look on during a media briefing on the sidelines of the G-20 meetings Friday in Pittsburgh. The U.S., Britain and France asked the IAEA for immediate access to a newly disclosed Iranian nuclear facility.

President Obama, backed by British and French leaders, demanded Friday that Iran open for inspection a previously secret uranium enrichment plant, warning Tehran that it would be "held accountable" if it continued to flout the rules of international conduct.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at a news conference in New York, said the facility would not be operational for 18 months and that his country had not violated any requirements under the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In a dramatic joint statement, Obama — flanked by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy — said the existence of the site "deepens a growing concern" that Iran has failed to live up to its international obligations to fully disclose its nuclear ambitions. Obama said Iran "is breaking rules that all nations must follow, endangering the world non-nuclear proliferation regime ... and the security of the world."

"The Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law," Obama said.

Sarkozy said Iran had until December to comply or "sanctions will have to be taken."

"Everything must be put on the table now," he said.

The leaders' remarks at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh came just hours after the IAEA said it had received a letter from Tehran admitting the existence of the facility, the second known to exist. A senior White House official said U.S. intelligence had been aware of the project for years and that going public with the information was prompted by Iran's discovery that Western powers knew about the plant.

"The level of deception by the Iranian government will shock and anger the international community, and it will harden our resolve," Brown said.

Iran had previously admitted to having only one enrichment facility at Natanz, 150 miles from Tehran, which is already being monitored by inspectors. The U.S., Israel and other countries believe Iran is trying to create nuclear weapons, though Tehran has denied it.

An IAEA spokesman in Vienna says the body has now asked Iran to provide specific details about the site and access to it as soon as possible.

Ahmadinejad, speaking in New York, said Iran did not have any problems with IAEA inspection of the new facility.

"We have no fears," he told reporters. Ahmadinejad said Iran was also hoping to buy enriched uranium for medical purposes from any country willing to sell, and was hopeful that Oct. 1 talks with Western powers concerned

over its nuclear program would help decrease tension.

In Obama's brief remarks, he said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was unable to be present for the joint statement, but that she supported the other three leaders.

Hours later, China and Russia — frequent obstacles to Western efforts to contain Iran — seemed to offer a muted backing to Obama's strong statement.

A statement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called on Iran to cooperate with an investigation into the newly revealed facility. Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters that Beijing is closely following the matter and agrees that the IAEA should look into the matter.

Iran admitted to the second enrichment plant in a letter it sent to IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei. Although the facility, 100 miles southwest of Tehran near the holy city of Qom, has been hidden from weapons inspectors, the U.S. has long known of its existence, an official told AP. Obama decided to go public with information of the facility after Iran caught on that Western intelligence agencies knew of its existence.

Speaking on background, senior administration officials said it would have been difficult for Iran to carry out a weapons program at Natanz, under international scrutiny and the intelligence had assumed a second, secret facility existed. Eventually, they found it, the officials said.

Iran is already under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze enrichment at the Natanz plant.

An August IAEA report said Iran had set up more than 8,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at Natanz. It said about 4,600 centrifuges were fully active.

Tehran has steadfastly maintained that it has the right to enrich uranium for a nationwide chain of nuclear reactors. But because enrichment can also produce weapons-grade uranium, the international community fears Tehran will make fissile material for nuclear warheads.

The IAEA believes Iran has amassed more than a ton of uranium from its older Natanz centrifuges that is less than 5 percent enriched. That would give Tehran more than enough material to produce enough weapons-grade uranium through further enrichment for one nuclear weapon.

The revelation of a secret plant further hinders the chances of progress in scheduled Oct. 1 talks between Iran and six world powers. At that meeting, the first in more than a year, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany plan to press Iran to scale back its enrichment activities. But Tehran has declared that it will not bargain on enrichment. Iran's nuclear negotiator dismissed the threat of new sanctions in an interview released Friday.

Obama said Iran "must be willing to cooperate fully to demonstrate that it is willing to fulfill peaceful intentions."

On Thursday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the Group of Eight industrialized nations is giving Iran until year end to commit to ending uranium enrichment and avoid new sanctions.

The existence of a secret Iranian enrichment program built on black-market technology was revealed seven years ago. Since then, the country has continued to expand the program with only a few interruptions as it works toward its aspirations of a 50,000-centrifuge enrichment facility at Natanz.

From NPR staff and wire reports

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.