Dramatically heightening the international confrontation over Iran, President Obama on Friday revealed the existence of an underground uranium enrichment site that the Islamic Republic had kept secret from international inspectors for years.
Disclosure of the site -- which Tehran did not deny, but said was for peaceful purposes -- sharpened accusations that Iran is deceiving the world about its nuclear intentions.
“Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow,” Obama said in remarks at an international summit in Pittsburgh, where he described the site and said that Tehran was “threatening the stability and security of the region and the world.”
Intelligence officials said the installation is buried deep inside a mountain about 100 miles southwest of Tehran, in a heavily guarded compound operated by the Revolutionary Guard.
Once operational, the facility would be capable of producing enough fuel each year to arm a nuclear warhead, according to U.S. intelligence officials who have been secretly tracking the site since at least 2006.
The disclosure, timed by the Obama administration for dramatic as well as diplomatic effect, came while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York, where he spoke at the United Nations this week, and only days before the United States and five other nations are scheduled to resume talks with Tehran about its nuclear program.
Iran appears to have become aware that the secrecy surrounding the site had been penetrated, prompting a cryptic disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in a letter sent this week.
But Obama, who came into office seeking a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, took the unusual step of unveiling details about the secret site himself during an appearance alongside the leaders of France and Britain at the Group of 20 conference of industrialized and key developing nations in Pittsburgh.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose spy services worked closely with their U.S. counterparts to gather intelligence on the site, condemned Iran’s conduct.
“The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community,” Brown said.
“And it will harden our resolve.”
Beyond escalating diplomatic tensions, the revelation raised anxiety about the potential spread of nuclear arms in the Middle East, as well as concern that Iran’s program may have reached a point where it can no longer be stopped by military strike, but only delayed.
The disclosure appeared to solidify support among key nations for new sanctions on Iran. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev voiced new support for such measures this week, saying that “when all instruments have been used and failed, one can use international legal sanctions.”
U.S. officials said Medvedev and Obama discussed the new Iranian facility for the first time Wednesday during a private meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Administration officials said similar details had also been shared with Chinese officials this week.
Ahmadinejad on Friday denied that Iran was breaking any international law, and sought to downplay the significance of the site, describing it as “a very ordinary facility in the beginning stages.”
In a news conference at a midtown Manhattan hotel, Ahmadinejad said the plant would not be operational for 18 months, and that Iran was not required to report work on such facilities until six months before they go online.
Earlier, in an interview with Time magazine, the Iranian leader appeared to be caught off guard and angered by the disclosure. “Mr. Obama is about to say this?” he asked, before adding that Obama’s disclosure “simply adds to the list of issues for which the United States owes the Iranian nation an apology.”
American intelligence officials said the site would not accelerate Iran’s ability to build a bomb. U.S. spy agencies believe that Tehran has not restarted work on nuclear warhead design, and remains one to five years away from producing highly enriched uranium suitable for a weapon.
Still, experts said the nature of the second enrichment facility, as well as the secrecy surrounding its development, has major implications for understanding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Several nuclear proliferation experts said the site all but erases any doubt that Iran aims to build a bomb, and raises fears that other secret sites have yet to be discovered.
The dimensions and design of the new facility near the city of Qom rule out any civilian nuclear energy purpose, U.S. intelligence officials said. The plant is large enough for only 3,000 centrifuges, a number too small to yield enough fuel for a power plant, but adequate to generate material for a bomb.
U.S. intelligence agencies developed deep suspicions about the site while President Bush was in office. But there are reasons that Bush may have been reluctant to launch a military strike, including the heavy demands of the war in Iraq and concern that his administration’s prewar claims about that country would undermine its ability to make a new case against Iran.
It is also unclear that a missile would destroy a facility burrowed so deeply underground, or that U.S. analysts were highly confident they knew the purpose of the Qom facility until this year.
A U.S. intelligence official said that analysts’ confidence in their conclusions about the site rose substantially this year when Iran began installing equipment in preparation for the arrival of centrifuges, cylindrical devices that spin at high rates of speed to convert uranium to highly enriched fuel.
The official said the facility is expected to be ready to become operational as early as next year.
Officials declined to say how U.S. spy agencies became aware of the site, whether through human sources, satellite imagery, signal intercepts or other means. CIA Director Leon E. Panetta attributed the revelation to “inputs from multiple intelligence disciplines” as well as assistance from other nations, including Britain and France.
But experts and former U.S. officials said the compound was one of several that have been the focus of American intelligence gathering efforts in recent years because of the heavy presence of the Revolutionary Guard, the elite intelligence and military wing of the regime.
U.S. spy satellites monitored the site for signs of nuclear activity, such as the delivery of small-diameter piping and vacuum equipment needed for operating centrifuges. U.S. intelligence agencies have acquired extensive knowledge of Iran’s equipment through study of its operational nuclear facility at Natanz.
Indeed, the existence of a second, smaller site seemed to confirm long-standing suspicions that Iran was pursuing a two-tiered nuclear program -- operating Natanz in plain view as an example of its supposedly peaceful nuclear ambitions, while secretly developing other sites for weapons-grade work.
Leonard Spector, a nuclear weapons expert at the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said Iran may have planned to use low-grade material produced at Natanz to feed into high-end centrifuge farms at the new site near Qom.
“What this signifies is that the program is not contained, that there clearly was an intention to start enriching in secret,” Spector said.
Iran’s ability to construct such a complex underground facility -- apparently with little or no outside help -- also heightened questions about whether the country’s nuclear program can any longer be crippled by a military strike.
“We obviously don’t take any options off the table,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday in an interview with CNN, echoing similar comments by Obama at a news conference in Pittsburgh.
Even so, Gates said, “the reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time.”
Others were more skeptical. “We may be past the point where the military option is viable anymore,” said John R. Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration.
The existence of the Qom site had been one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the U.S. intelligence community in recent years. Wary of lingering embarrassment over the United States’ erroneous pre-war assertions about Iraq, administration officials said they held back until they had complete confidence in the intelligence.
Obama was made aware of the site before he took office, and instructed subordinates to prepare a brief that could be presented publicly. One plan was to use the information at the outset of resumed talks with Iran, sending a signal that it would have to come clean.
A senior Obama administration official described the Iranian letter to the IAEA as a “non-transparent disclosure” that failed even to identify the site’s location. The episode is the latest example of “a pattern of deception” by Iran, the official said. “They tend to reveal only when they are forced to reveal.”
Indeed, Iran kept its facility at Natanz secret for years until it was exposed in 2002 by an Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedin Khalq. Late Thursday, the group had pointed to new sites where it said Iranian scientists were working to develop nuclear weapons.
Natanz now has 8,000 centrifuges in place, with the capacity for adding tens of thousands more, although U.S. officials said it is not yet equipped to produce the highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb.
The new facility near Qom, the U.S. intelligence official said, “is more easily configured for highly enriched uranium.”
Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, Christi Parsons in Washington, Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem and Tina Susman at the United Nations contributed to this report.