Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that it is constructing an underground uranium enrichment "pilot plant" at a site roughly 100 miles southwest of Tehran, the U.N. organization confirmed today (see GSN, Sept. 24).
The existence of the Qum enrichment site -- also confirmed to Iranian state media by an "informed source" -- is certain to heighten international suspicions that Iran's uranium enrichment program is intended to generate nuclear-weapon material.
In a Monday letter to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Iran billed the facility as a research site that would only produce low-enriched uranium on an experimental basis, IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said, according to Reuters.
"The agency also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility," Vidricaire said, adding that Iran's letter promises "further complementary information" on the site "in an appropriate and due time.'"
"In response, the IAEA has requested to Iran to provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible," he said.
Diplomats said that the site is not yet hosting any uranium enrichment centrifuges (Mark Heinrich, Reuters, Sept. 25). The facility is eventually intended to house 3,000 of the machines, roughly one-third the number installed at the Middle Eastern nation's only other known enrichment site at Natanz, U.S. officials told the New York Times late yesterday.
Iran's disclosure of the complex preempted a formal assertion of the site's existence today by the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Washington had been following the facility's progress for years, but decided to make its existence public after Iran learned weeks ago that the secrecy surrounding the project had been compromised, U.S. officials said.
"The size and type of the facility is inconsistent with that of a peaceful facility," U.S. President Barack Obama said at an appearance in Pittsburgh with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The three Western powers have provided their intelligence on the site to IAEA officials, he said.
"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 entire international community,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
Public revelation of the facility's existence is likely to strengthen an international drive to impose new economic penalties on Iran over its enrichment program, U.S. officials suggested (Sanger/Cooper, New York Times, Sept. 25).
Speaking yesterday for the Group of Eight industrialized countries, Italy indicated that Iran would face new sanctions if it failed to halt its enrichment activities by the end of 2009, Agence France-Presse reported.
The powers agreed Wednesday that they would "give Iran a chance" to halt its enrichment program in compliance with existing U.N. Security Council resolutions, but they would review Tehran's progress toward that goal on a monthly basis, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
"After the end of December, I strongly hope we will have at that time practical moves from Iran," he said (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Sept. 24).
Meanwhile, an organization of Iranian exiles accused Tehran yesterday of assembling nuclear-weapon detonators at two clandestine facilities.
"Resistance sources have managed to uncover two centers that work directly on nuclear armaments and which were until now kept secret," said Mehdi Abrihamtchi, spokesman for the Paris-based group People's Mujahedeen. "They are places for research and production of detonation systems which is a major part of the mullahs' atomic bomb project.
The sites were operated by an agency called Research Center for the Technology of Explosion and Impact, or METFAZ, the organization alleged.
One of the two buildings, based in Iran's capital, serves as the agency's headquarters, the spokesman said.
The second site, located east of Tehran, is involved in building "parts and units necessary for tests," he said.
The group has provided its knowledge of the sites to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Abrihamtchi said (Peter James Spielmann, Associated Press/Google News, Sept. 24).