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U.S., allies to press Iran for free access to facility

No deadline has been set but Tehran would probably have to comply within weeks, an American official says.

September 27, 2009|Jim Puzzanghera and Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its allies plan to demand that Iran provide "unfettered access" to scientists and information regarding an underground uranium enrichment plant suspected of being part of a secret nuclear weapons program, an Obama administration official said Saturday.

A deadline for the access has not yet been determined, but Iran probably would have to comply within weeks, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The U.S. is working with five other nations -- France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany -- to press Iran for details after the disclosure that the Islamic Republic has been building the facility deep in a mountain on a military base near the city of Qom.

President Obama announced the existence of the plant Friday at an international economic summit in Pittsburgh. U.S. intelligence officials have been tracking the facility since at least 2006 and said the 3,000 centrifuges it is expected to hold could produce enough fuel annually to arm a nuclear warhead.

Iran, which disclosed the site to international nuclear inspectors in a cryptic letter last week, said the facility was for peaceful purposes. The director of Iran's nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Saturday that United Nations inspectors would be allowed to visit the site.

On Thursday, officials from the United States, the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany are to meet with Iranian officials in Geneva for previously arranged negotiations that Obama said Saturday would "take on added urgency."

"This is a serious challenge to the global nonproliferation regime and continues a disturbing pattern of Iranian evasion," Obama said in his weekly radio and video address. "Iran's leaders must now choose. They can live up to their responsibilities and achieve integration with the community of nations, or they will face increased pressure and isolation, and deny opportunity to their own people."

A senior State Department official said that although the six world powers that are pressing Iran haven't set a deadline for compliance, Obama has signaled a general schedule by saying that the United States would "take stock" of Iranian cooperation at the end of the year.

Iran must provide documents and access, the State Department official said. At the meeting Thursday, Iranian officials will need to show that they are willing to "engage" and "set up a process" for satisfying the other countries.

"Iran needs to make a fundamental choice here," the official said.

Salehi said Saturday that he was "shocked" by the outside world's reaction to news of the plant, which is still under construction, according to the Iranian state news agency. He said Iran was not obliged to disclose the plant's existence for another year.

But the senior State Department official said "the facts are clear" that Iran was obliged under agreements to disclose the facility's existence.

U.S. officials plan to seek broader access to information about Iran's nuclear program, but Washington's immediate concern is learning more about the facility near Qom, the administration official said. Intelligence officials have gained extensive knowledge of Iran's equipment through study of its operational nuclear facility at Natanz, exposed in 2002 by an Iranian dissident group.

"With respect to a time frame on broader access to information about Iran's nuclear program, there just isn't one yet. That will depend on how the talks go," the official said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Obama was falsely accusing his country of hiding the site's existence from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, and has demanded an apology.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said there was no chance Iran would get one.

"This is part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning with respect to their nuclear program. So it's no wonder that world leaders think that they have ulterior motives, that they have a plan to go forward with nuclear weapons," Gates said in an interview posted Saturday on the Internet, to be broadcast today on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos.

"My personal opinion is that the Iranians have the intention of having nuclear weapons," he said. "I think the question of whether they have made a formal decision to move toward the development of nuclear weapons is in doubt."

--

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

cparsons@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.

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