Obama accuses Iran of concealing secret uranium plant 'America should apologise to us,' demands Iranian President 'Ahmadinejad has enough uranium to go whole way' Senior US official says secret facility is right size to make 'bomb or two a year' But Tehran insists facility is for civilian use and other countries should not interfere
THE CRISIS in relations with Iran escalated ominously yesterday after the leaders of the US, Britain and France accused the regime in Tehran of operating a secret uranium enrichment facility buried deep in a mountain bunker near the ancient religious city of Qom. Barack Obama called Iran's activity "a direct challenge" to the international community.
The accusations were made public in an extraordinary joint statement by the US President, flanked by Gordon Brown and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy before the start of the G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh.
Iran had previously insisted that its plant at Natanz, which is open to international inspection, was the only one involved in enrichment. The new revelation sharply raises the stakes at a time when Israel has been signalling that military strikes against Iran are on the table.
Iran's first response was one of familiar defiance. "If I were Obama's adviser, I would definitely advise him to refrain from making this statement because it is definitely a mistake," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview with Time magazine in New York.
Western sources said the plant at Qom, 120 miles south-west of Tehran, is not yet operational. But it is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines, which would provide the uranium needed to produce one atomic bomb a year. "Iran has enough uranium to go the whole way," one Western diplomat said. A senior US official said that number of centrifuges could not produce enough uranium to make sense commercially for power generation. "But if you want to use the facility to produce a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, enough for a bomb or two a year, it's the right size."
He stressed that making a bomb was "still some way off" but that the plant gives Iran "more options." French officials said the secret plant was in a "heavily protected" area under the control of the Revolutionary Guards loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad.
If nonplussed that the plant's cover has been so dramatically blown, Iran's President insisted his government was in compliance with the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency. "This does not mean we must inform Mr Obama's administration of every facility that we have," he said. Mr Obama's claim "simply adds to the list of issues to which the United States owes the Iranian nation an apology over".
Later, Mr Ahmadinejad softened his tone telling reporters that Iran was in fact ready to give international inspectors access to the Qom facility. "We have no fears," he said.
Yet for Mr Obama, the revelation will bolster the case for tougher sanctions on Iran, if its regime does not bend now to calls for enrichment to stop. It also ratchets up tensions significantly on the eve of talks scheduled next Thursday in Geneva between the regime and six world powers, including Britain, the US and Russia.
"The Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law," Mr Obama said. His French and British peers portrayed even deeper indignation. "The level of deception by the Iranian government and the scale of what we believe is a breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community and it will harden our resolve," Mr Brown said, adding that it was time to "draw a line in the sand". He went on: "This is the third time they have been caught red-handed, not telling the truth."
Mr Sarkozy set a …