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Iran admits building fortified nuclear site

Revelation raises fears of more secret facilities

By Ali Akbar Dareini and George Jahn
Associated Press / September 30, 2009

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TEHRAN - In an unusually frank disclosure, Iran’s nuclear chief said yesterday that the country has a new uranium enrichment site built for maximum protection from aerial attack: carved into a mountain and near a military compound of the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s revelation that it covertly built a second uranium enrichment plant has raised international concerns that other secret nuclear sites might exist as well.

Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi’s statement came with a hard-line message ahead of crucial talks this week with the US and other world powers - Iran will not give up its ability to produce nuclear fuel.

The details emerging about the secret site near the holy city of Qom have only heightened suspicions Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, despite repeated denials.

Salehi, who is vice president and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spoke at a news conference that touched on sensitive military and nuclear issues rarely discussed publicly in Iran. The effort at openness was seen as an attempt to counter international dismay over the nuclear site and a new round of missile tests this week.

“This site is at the base of a mountain and was selected on purpose in a place that would be protected against aerial attack. That’s why the site was chosen adjacent to a military site,’’ Salehi said. “It was intended to safeguard our nuclear facilities and reduce the cost of an active defense system.’’

He said Iran is willing to have a general discussion about nuclear technology when it meets tomorrow in Geneva with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. But he insisted Iran will not give up its “right’’ to uranium enrichment, which produces fuel that can be used for both nuclear energy or nuclear weapons.

“We will never bargain over our sovereign right,’’ said Salehi, repeating a long-held Iranian position.

The US and its allies have demanded Iran come clean on all its nuclear activities or face harsher international sanctions. President Obama’s administration is planning to push for new sanctions targeting Iran’s energy, financial and telecommunications sectors if it does not comply with international demands, according to US officials.

Salehi reiterated that Iran is in talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency to set a timetable soon for an inspection of the Qom site. He said the country did not feel bound by a US demand to allow an inspection within a month.

“We are working out the timetable,’’ he said.

The nuclear facility, named Meshkat or Lantern, is located next to a military compound of the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s most powerful military force, equipped with an air defense system, Salehi said.

The revelations have raised questions about whether the plant was the only site going unreported.

“You only need to ask yourself if you were the manager of the Iranian nuclear program, how likely is it that you would put all your nuclear eggs in one basket?’’ asked Graham Allison, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and now director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

“My expectation is that over the months ahead, Iran will either be found out to have a number of other sites or Iran may even announce that it has a number of other sites,’’ he said.