Iran will allow the U.N. nuclear agency to inspect a newly revealed and still unfinished uranium enrichment facility, the country's nuclear chief told state television Saturday.
Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi didn't specify when inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency could visit the site, but said it has to be worked out with the agency under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty rules.
Iran's newly revealed enrichment site is said to be in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom, inside a heavily guarded, underground facility belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guard.
The small-scale site is meant to house no more than 3,000 centrifuges — much less than the 8,000 machines at Natanz, Iran's known industrial-scale enrichment facility. Still, the enriching machines in Qom facility will produce nuclear fuel — or possibly the payload for atomic warheads.
President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Iran on Friday of constructing a secret underground uranium enrichment facility and of hiding its existence from international inspectors for years.
But Salehi said there was nothing secret about the site and that Iran complied with U.N. rules that require it to inform the world body's nuclear agency six months before a uranium enrichment facility becomes operational.
"Inspection will be within the framework of the regulations ... we have no problem with inspection (of the site). We will work out this issue with the agency and will announce the date of the inspection later after reaching an agreement with IAEA," Salei told state television Saturday.
Salehi, who is also the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Tehran should be praised, not condemned, for voluntarily revealing the existence of the nuclear facility.
"Under (NPT) rules, we are required to inform the IAEA of the existence of such a facility 180 days before introducing materials but we are announcing it more than a year earlier. Still, we see there is controversy. We are astonished," he said.
'Blind the eyes of the enemies'
Iran says the new facility won't be operational for 18 months so Iran has not violated any IAEA requirements.
The Iranians claim to have withdrawn from an agreement with the IAEA requiring them to notify the agency of the intent to build any new nuclear facilities and instead are now only subject to the six-month notification requirement before a facility becomes operational.
But the IAEA says Tehran cannot unilaterally withdraw from that bilateral agreement and should have announced just the intent to build the facility.
A close aide to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also said said Saturday that the Qom facility will be operational "soon," perhaps even ahead of the 18 month figure cited by Salehi.
"This new facility, God willing, will become operational soon and will blind the eyes of the enemies," Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani told the semi-official Fars news agency.
Salehi said that by reporting the existence of the site voluntarily to the IAEA, Iran "pre-empted a conspiracy" against Tehran by the U.S. and its allies who were hoping to reveal the site as evidence that Iran was developing its nuclear program in secret.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has foiled their planned conspiracy," he said.
Salehi said construction of the Qom facility was a "precautionary measure" to protect Iran's nuclear facilities from possible attacks.
"Given the threats we face every day, we are required to take the necessary precautionary measures, spread our facilities and protect our human assets. Therefore, the facility is to guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activities under any conditions," he told the television.