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Will Iran's Revelation Change The Nuclear Equation?

President Obama announces new intelligence on a previously undisclosed nuclear facility in Iran. He is joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Friday's news briefing in Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit.
Stefan Rousseau
Press Association via AP
President Obama announces new intelligence on a previously undisclosed nuclear facility in Iran. He is joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Friday's news briefing in Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit.

Standing alongside the leaders of France and Britain, President Obama tried to present a unified front Friday when revealing that Iran has been building a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility for the past several years.

"Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow," Obama said ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh. "It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community."

The statements by the three leaders appear aimed at using the latest revelation as a lever to put even more pressure on Iran to disclose fully the extent of its nuclear program and set to rest widespread suspicions that Iran may be seeking to acquire the capacity to build nuclear weapons. But it is not clear how much the disclosure will change the protracted negotiations.

A stern French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a December deadline for Iran to make "an in-depth change" or face sanctions, saying the Iranian regime is challenging the entire international community. "We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the motors are running," he said.

The new plant, located 100 miles southwest of Tehran, near the ancient city of Qom, is the second known Iranian enrichment facility. Iran had previously acknowledged having only the plant, under international monitoring, near the city of Natanz. Obama said the site and configuration of the newly disclosed plant are "inconsistent" with Iran's stated goal of producing peaceful nuclear energy.

The leaders' message was partly aimed at forcing Iran to be more cooperative at a meeting scheduled for Oct. 1 in Geneva, where representatives from the United States, Britain and France, along with Russia, China and Germany, will sit down with Iranian officials to discuss their nuclear program.

But many experts believe that despite the added pressure, the Iranian regime is unlikely to cede much ground to Washington.

"What they're trying to do is put the Iranians on the defensive," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They are hoping it will make them a little more forthcoming, but I don't know if that's an accurate reading of the Iranian negotiating team."

Takeyh says Iran's interest in a nuclear program appears undimmed, noting that Iranian television this week has been airing a program that blasts former Iranian nuclear negotiators for making concessions to Western leaders in the past. "They're not reformed alcoholics," he says. "They still like the drink."

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated a new and unexpected proposal — his interest in purchasing low-grade enriched uranium from the United States for use in a medical facility.

"We want the uranium, and we're willing to purchase it," Ahmadinejad told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "This is a good way to have exchanges."

There is little chance that the United States or the Europeans would look favorably on this idea as long as Iran is under sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

The U.S. decision to discuss the previously secret enrichment facility came after the Iranian government notified the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna about the plant's existence. The IAEA has requested access to the facility as soon as possible, and Iran is expected to comply.

But Tehran says it was under no obligation to disclose the facility earlier. NPR's Mike Shuster notes that Iranian officials have long asserted that IAEA rules only require official notification six months before nuclear material will be introduced into a site. There is no sign that any nuclear material is present there yet.

U.S. officials dispute Tehran's interpretation, saying Iran is obligated to notify the IAEA as soon as it begins construction of a facility intended for nuclear use.

More broadly, the statement by Obama, Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also aimed at putting additional pressure on the international community to punish Iran if it doesn't come clean.

"This announcement simply confirmed what many people already believed to be true, namely that Iran has not been transparent with the IAEA," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It further damages Iran's already threadbare credibility, and it will make it more difficult for some European Union nations and Russia to continue resisting enhanced punitive measures."

Still, it is not clear that all five permanent members of the United Nations will go along with a vote for tougher economic sanctions on Tehran.

Chinese officials have signaled their continued opposition to sanctions, making a new U.N. resolution potentially elusive. But U.S. officials had not yet briefed China on the existence of the second enrichment facility.

Obama did share details about the secret facility with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when they met face-to face Wednesday, according to U.S. officials.

Medvedev displayed some apparent new flexibility after that meeting, conceding that sanctions are sometimes "inevitable." Russia, however, has long been the primary opponent to tougher punishment for Iran, and there has been no signal yet from powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Russia's position would change.

Experts say the international reactions that matter most in determining the Iranian response will come from Russia and from IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei in the coming days.

"If the Iranians look to see how things are going and people say, 'We've had enough, it's outrageous,' they might feel they have to make some concessions," says George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment. "If ElBaradei or the Russians say it's not that big of a deal, they will come full tilt and not make any hint of compromise next week."

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Kevin Whitelaw
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