PITTSBURGH | President Obama’s decision to confront Iran with evidence of a secret nuclear production site Friday was the culmination of a deliberate strategy over the past nine months to gain maximum impact from the disclosure by building up to it with other 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 go back to Mr. Obama’s inaugural promise to engage in meaningful dialogue with Iran to two letters he sent to Iran’s supreme leader, which led to Tehran’s agreeing to sit down with negotiators from the U.S. and other world powers on Oct. 1. Mr. Obama has lobbied or spoken to key leaders for months, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Last week the White House scrapped a missile defense plan that had infuriated Russia, smoothing the way for closer cooperation. That was followed by a progression of moves that played out at the United Nations. Mr. Obama gave a broad speech to the General Assembly that included an appeal to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He then bolstered the treaty procedurally with the passage of a Security Council resolution at a meeting he chaired, the first U.S. president to do so.
In between the speech and the council vote, Mr. Obama held meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose governments are key to further U.N. sanctions against Iran.
“It’s important to see what happened today building on what happened in New York,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference to close out the week, adding that his overall strategy to keep an open hand toward Iran had succeeded in isolating Tehran on the world stage.
“That means that, when we find that diplomacy does not work, we will be in a much stronger position to, for example, apply sanctions that have bite,” he said.
A high-ranking government official in Washington who has been involved in the strategy formulation said that the engagement policy, which has been roundly criticized by many conservatives and foreign policy hawks, had “create* a new landscape, a landscape where the Iranians would look out and realize they really were sitting there alone.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview to be broadcast Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that, “The Iranians are in a very bad spot now,”
U.S. officials said they had been developing the intelligence about the uranium plant for some time to have it ready for important meetings this week, but the exact timing was influenced by a Iranian letter to the IAEA on Monday admitting that a second enrichment plant was under construction but providing few details.
At the United Nations, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended the plant near the Iranian theological center of Qom as within IAEA rules because Iran has not yet introduced nuclear materials into it.
However, Mr. Obama said Iran had violated U.N. resolutions and IAEA rules by not informing the nuclear watchdog in advance about the project.
“Iran’s actions have raised grave doubts” about Iranian claims that they are only pursuing the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” he said. “Iran is on notice when we meet with them Oct. 1. … They’re going to have to come clean and they’re going to have to make a choice.”
It is still unclear whether Iran will bow to international pressure. Some nuclear experts noted that the discovery of a clandestine site suggests that Iran could have many more.
“The Iranians are teaching us the limits of what we are overselling,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
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.
Mr. Sokolski agreed, however, that the timing of the disclosure was “fortuitous.” And he gave credit to the Obama administration “for keeping its powder keg dry.”
White House officials acknowledged that the Iranians will determine when IAEA inspectors will be allowed into the site. IAEA spokesperson Marc Vidricaire said that the organization in Vienna “has requested Iran to provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible.”
Mr. Obama said that the intelligence on the once secret site, tunneled into mountains 18 miles north of Qom, which is about 160 miles southwest of Tehran, was the product of U.S., British and French intelligence, had been “thoroughly scrubbed” and was “solid.”
“The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program,” he said.
“The facility is located in an underground tunnel complex on the grounds of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base,” an official in Washington said. “The site is under the management of the Atomic Energy Organization for Iran, but is unknown to all but the most senior AEOI officials.” He spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the information.
White House officials here explained 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.
A 2007 U.S. intelligence estimate said Iran appeared to have stopped work on nuclear warheads but was continuing enrichment, which can produce fuel for civilian reactors or bombs.
“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.
White House officials told reporters that they briefed 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 on Wednesday.
That sheds light on why American officials who briefed the press afterward seemed so elated with a statement from the Russian leader that 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 Oct. 1 meeting,” the Kremlin said.
Mr. Obama did not inform Mr. Hu on Tuesday of 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 on Thursday reiterated 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,” an adviser to Mr. Obama said.
A senior White House adviser told reporters here Friday that the development “increases our leverage diplomatically, and we intend to make use of it.”
“It was important to us, coming into this critical period in the fall, to be prepared, to be basically in the driver’s seat under any contingency,” an official in Washington said.
Barbara Slavin and Eli Lake in Washington and Nicholas Kralev in Berlin contributed to this report.