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World Leaders Warn Iran Over Uranium Enrichment

September 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain accused Iran Friday of building a covert uranium-enrichment site. Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright examines what's known about the Iranian facility.

JIM LEHRER: The U.S., Britain, and France reacted sharply today to news about Iran’s nuclear program. It involved a key facility being built in secret, at least until now.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, accompanied by the president of the French Republic and the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

KWAME HOLMAN: The disclosure that Iran has been building a new plant to enrich uranium came amid the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh. President Obama, flanked by the leaders of France and Britain, said Iran intentionally had hidden the plant for years.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program. Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow, endangering the global nonproliferation regime, denying its own people access to the opportunity they deserve, and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world.

We have offered Iran a clear path toward greater international integration if it lives up to its obligations, and that offer stands. But the Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law.

KWAME HOLMAN: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Iran’s nuclear program “the most urgent proliferation challenge that the world faces today.”

GORDON BROWN, prime minister, Great Britain: Confronted by the serial deception of many years, the international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.

And I say, on behalf of the United Kingdom today, we will not let this matter rest. And we are prepared to implement further and more stringent sanctions. Let the message that goes out to the world be absolutely clear, that Iran must abandon any military ambitions for its nuclear program.

KWAME HOLMAN: French President Nicolas Sarkozy went further. He attached a deadline and did not rule out military action.

NICOLAS SARKOZY, president, France: We were already in a very severe confidence crisis. We are now faced with a challenge, a challenge made to the entire international community. Everything, everything must be put on the table now. We cannot let Iranian leaders gain time while the motors are running. If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken.

Iranian response

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President of Iran
It's really bad for three heads of state to say something that doesn't have any legal foundation. And, you know, they're accusing an independent government, member state of the IAEA, without any evidence or documentation.

KWAME HOLMAN: The hidden Iranian facility is based some 100 miles from the capital, Tehran, near the city of Qom. The country's first uranium enrichment plant near Natanz was revealed in 2002.

Iran long has insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful uses. But a senior White House official said the Qom facility could process enough uranium for a nuclear weapon in one year.

Iran disclosed this latest site to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday, but American officials said that was only after Iran learned that Western nations already had known the secret for "several years." They said Mr. Obama went public so Iran's explanations would not go unchallenged.

Indeed, the Iranians today insisted there is no secret. They said they have complied with all obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

And in a note of defiance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Time magazine, "This does not mean we must inform Mr. Obama's administration of every facility that we have."

Later, at a news conference in New York, he said his country had been falsely accused.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, president, Iran: It's really bad for three heads of state to say something that doesn't have any legal foundation. And, you know, they're accusing an independent government, member state of the IAEA, without any evidence or documentation. Now, this is really the reverse of the trend, the reverse trend that Mr. Obama was aiming at.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today's disclosure will weigh heavily in meetings Iran holds next week with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of state: The nuclear program was on the table before. It is on the table with increased urgency now. This is now a clear challenge to the international community, because this facility sharpens our sense of urgency.

KWAME HOLMAN: In response, Russian President Medvedev said today Iran's new plant violated U.N. security decisions, but he made no mention of new sanctions. And China said all such issues can be resolved through negotiation.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff takes the story from there.

'A very important site'

David Albright
Institute for Science and Int. Security
Iran has said many times publicly that it has revealed everything to the IAEA, everything is known, and yet here you have a very important nuclear site that was not known to the IAEA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this, we turn to David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector. He's now president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

David Albright, good to have you with us again.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama just had a news conference a few minutes ago. Among other things, he said -- and I'm quoting -- "Iran's actions have raised grave doubts in terms of their presentation that their nuclear program was for peaceful purposes." So what exactly is known about this facility?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, not very much. I mean, there's been some statements about it that it's a gas centrifuge plant, it enriches uranium, it's relatively small compared to what you would need for a plant to make low-enriched uranium for nuclear power reactors, but most importantly, it has been built in secrecy.

And Iran has said many times publicly that it has revealed everything to the IAEA, everything is known, and yet here you have a very important nuclear site that was not known to the IAEA and appears to only have been revealed to the IAEA by Iran after Iran was caught building it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say a very important site. Again, how much do we know? What is this site capable of doing and how fast?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, according to what the government has been saying, is that it's a site that would hold up to 3,000 gas centrifuges. That's enough to make a bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium every year, nuclear explosive material.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One bomb a year?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yes, and they don't really know, I think, what kind of centrifuges are going to be installed, so I think these are very uncertain estimates.

And also, there's been this worry for several years that Iran would construct a facility to allow it to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which means that they would use their low-enriched uranium that's been produced at their other enrichment plant, is inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and they'd move that secretly over to a secret enrichment site and pretty rapidly -- within months -- turn that into weapon-grade uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon, in a sense, break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and relatively rapidly have nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the president also said just a few minutes ago, David Albright, that the United States and its allies are absolutely confident of this intelligence. I mean, how much of it have you seen, have you been able to learn from the administration?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: We've tried all day to learn, people at ISIS and myself, and we haven't learned very much. I mean, we found the government rather evasive about answering basic questions about the information. They make assertions. They say they're certain about it. But we haven't actually seen much of it. And ultimately, it's going to be up to the IAEA inspectors...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The international body.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: ... to go in and verify this information and by visiting this site. But, again, Iran may not cooperate, and then we're left with what -- how good is this intelligence information?

And I think the United States government and other governments, British and French, are going to have to release a lot more information about this facility in order to be believed in the end.

Time for Iran to 'come clean'

David Albright
Institute for Science and Int. Security
Ultimately, until Iran comes clean, we won't know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In other words, you're saying they are hoping that Iran will do that, but if Iran doesn't, then they should release more...

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That's right. And we're left discussing the quality of intelligence information again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iranians continue to insist that this is nothing for the West to worry about, it's for peaceful, civilian purposes. How do we know that they're not telling the truth?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, in the end, we're relying on intelligence information and assessments of that information to say that this is part of a nuclear weapons program. And that's why it can be settled if the IAEA goes in there. At least they can know about the facility, they can put it under safeguards, and in a sense remove it from the category of secret sites that could be used for Iran to make nuclear weapons either through a breakout scenario or just in secret, as a parallel program. But ultimately, until Iran comes clean, we won't know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying there is a chance that it could be a civilian -- a peaceful, civilian...

DAVID ALBRIGHT: There's always a chance. It's always a chance. Or it could be that Iran doesn't know what it's going to do with it, that it's -- they were creating a nuclear weapons capability, and that they haven't made a decision to build nuclear weapons, but if they do, then this site was going to be an extremely important part of the implementation of that policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if Iran does not come forward, does not permit inspections, does not give the information, what is the -- how does the rest of the world discover what's really going on?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, it's going to be very hard. But, you know, one hopes that the intelligence information is truly solid. And then, if Iran does not cooperate with the inspectors, they're going to be in a far worse political position.

Because it's one thing for the world, the international community, other nations to look and decide, is Iran going to build nuclear weapons in the future? They're much less interested in that. But they're always very concerned if a country refuses to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to do their job when it concerns a facility that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

And so if Iran doesn't come clean with this facility by letting the inspectors in, I think it's going to face a very hard time fighting off sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Albright, thank you very much.