PITTSBURGH | President Obama’s decision to confront Iran with evidence of a secret nuclear production site Friday was the culmination of a deliberate strategy to yield maximum impact from the disclosure by building up to the announcement with a series of preliminary steps on the world stage.
A high-ranking administration official told The Washington Times that while the White House knew about Iran’s construction of a second uranium enrichment plant before Mr. Obama took office in January, it waited to drop the bombshell until U.S. officials had conducted extensive diplomatic advance work.
The preparations included getting Iran to commit to talks on Oct. 1 and a progression of actions that played out at the United Nations earlier this week. Mr. Obama gave a broad speech to the General Assembly intended to garner support for U.S. leadership that included an appeal to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, then did so procedurally with the passage of a Security Council resolution at a meeting he chaired.
• U.S., U.K., French heads demand Iran nuke site probed
In between, Mr. Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, two men key to obtaining further sanctions at the Security Council.
The White House sees the entire process as giving them an upper hand in pressuring Iran into backing away from its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
A senior White House adviser told reporters here Friday that the development “increases our leverage diplomatically, and we intend to make use of it.” He spoke on condition that he not be named, a frequent White House procedure.
Earlier, the president, appearing with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said that at the Oct. 1 meeting, “Iran must be prepared to cooperate fully and comprehensively with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to take concrete steps to create confidence and transparency in its nuclear program.”
He also said that at the meeting, Iran must “demonstrate that it is committed to establishing its peaceful intentions through meaningful dialogue and concrete actions,” and added that his administration remains open to “meaningful engagement” with Iran.
Iranian President Mahmound Ahmadinejad, who was being interviewed in New York by Time Magazine reporters as Mr. Obama went public with the news of the Iranian site, lashed out at the U.S. leader.
“If I were Obama’s adviser, I would definitely advise him to refrain making this statement because it is definitely a mistake,” the Iranian leader said. “This does not mean we must inform Mr. Obama’s administration of every facility that we have.”
White House officials told reporters that they were briefing Russian, Chinese and German officials about the technical details of their evidence on the sidelines of global economic talks here. They said that Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev about the intelligence — shared with the British and French for some time — at their meeting in New York Wednesday.
Iran, apparently aware that the U.S. knew about the facility near the city of Qom, about 100 miles southwest of Tehran, sent a letter to the IAEA on Monday acknowledging that “a new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country,” IAEA spokesperson Marc Vidricaire said in a statement.
Iran said the enrichment facility would produce fuel not capable of being used in weapons and that “further complementary information will be provided in an appropriate and due time,” Mr. Vidricaire said.
He said that Iran said no nuclear material had been introduced into the site and that the “IAEA has requested Iran to provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible.”
Mr. Obama said, “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.”
His advisers explained to reporters that the site was configured for 3,000 centrifuges — not enough to produce fuel for a civilian reactor, which Iran claims is the goal of its program, but big enough to make highly enriched uranium for one or two nuclear bombs a year.
In 2002, an Iranian opposition group revealed Iran’s first secret enrichment plant, at Natanz. It now has about 8,000 centrifuges under IAEA supervision producing low-enriched uranium.
“It was evident to everybody, both the United States and our allies, that if the Iranians wanted to pursue a nuclear weapons option, the use of the Natanz facility was a very unattractive approach… So the obvious option for Iran would be to build another secret underground enrichment facility,” said a senior White House official.
“Our intelligence services, working in very close cooperation with our allies, for the past several years have been looking for such a facility. And not surprisingly we found one. So we have known for some time now,” he said.
The news that Mr. Obama shared this information at a high level with Mr. Medvedev on Wednesday sheds light on why American officials who briefed the press afterward seemed so elated with a statement from the Russian leader regarding sanctions that was not a full-throated endorsement of punitive action but said sanctions were sometimes “inevitable.”
The Kremlin released a statement Friday saying that “Iran’s construction of a uranium enrichment plant violates decisions of the United Nations Security Council” and calling for the IAEA to “investigate this site immediately.”
“Iran must cooperate with this investigation. Russia will assist in this investigation by any available means. Russia remains committed to a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue, and urges Iran to provide proof of its commitment to a peaceful nuclear program by the October 1 meeting,” the Kremlin said.
A day before his meeting with Mr. Medvedev, Mr. Obama did not inform Mr. Hu on Tuesday of their plans to go public with the information about the Iranian site, apparently because the White House had not yet decided to do so.
The Chinese reiterated on Thursday their opposition to new sanctions against Iran, but White House officials said Friday that Beijing made those comments before it had been briefed by U.S. intelligence officials.
“China is just now fully absorbing these latest revelations. I think we should stay tuned for the Chinese position in the coming days,” said an adviser to Mr. Obama.
Jim Walsh, a proliferation expert at MIT, said the disclosure puts Iran in a “weaker position” for the upcoming talks, which will take place with the U.S., the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.
“They may feel under the gun especially given all else that has gone on since June 12,” when disputed presidential elections led to mass protests that are continuing, Mr. Walsh said.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, agreed that the timing of the disclosure was “fortuitous.” And he gave credit to the Obama administration “for keeping its powder keg dry.” At the same time, he said, the U.S. should not get overconfident about its ability to detect covert nuclear facilities in Iran.
“The Iranians are teaching us the limits of what we are overselling,” he said.
Each time they are caught, the Iranians belatedly inform the IAEA and claim they are not breaking the rules, he said, and the IAEA then agrees to monitor the new facility.
“What you’re doing is increasing the noise to signal ratio and making it much tougher to find the next covert facility,” he said.
White House officials acknowledged that the Iranians will determine when IAEA inspectors will be allowed into the site.
The president’s statement Friday was grim but lawyerly, with multiple references to international responsibilities that Iran must adhere to and to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which is a bulwark of the administration’s strategy to hem in Tehran. Mr. Obama did not mention sanctions.
By contrast, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Brown both talked of sanctions and expressed anger and outrage at the news.
“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, and it will harden our resolve,” Mr. Brown said. “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
Mr. Sarkozy said that “everything must be put on the table now” for the Oct. 1 meeting.
“If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken,” he said.
Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois and co-chair of the 34 member bipartisan House working group on Iran said the disclosure of the underground facility should spur passage of new sanctions targeting exports of gasoline to the Islamic Republic.
“It is time for the House to move the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act to the floor next week,” he said in a statement. “I introduced this sanctions plan four years ago because Iran depends on imported gasoline for up to 40 percent of its needs. A gasoline quarantine is the sanction that will actually work.”
• Barbara Slavin and Eli Lake in Washington contributed to this report.