In an unusually frank disclosure, Iran's nuclear chief said Tuesday the country's new uranium enrichment site was 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 U.S. 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. If we had chosen another site, we would have had to set up another aerial defense system."
‘Right’ to uranium enrichment
He said Iran is willing to have a general discussion about nuclear technology when it meets Thursday in Geneva with the five permanent members of the U.N. 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 U.S. and its allies have demanded Iran come clean on all its nuclear activities or face harsher international sanctions. President Barack 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 U.S. officials.
Hard-line Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Karami Rad threatened Tuesday that Iran might pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty if the U.S. and its allies pressure Iran during the Geneva talks, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Iranian officials have dismissed such calls to pull out in the past, saying the country will remain committed to its obligations.
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 U.S. demand to allow an inspection within a month.
"We are working out the timetable," he said. "It could be sooner than a month or later." Iran will officially inform the IAEA of details about the site at a later date, he said.
Site’s air defense system
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.
"This is a contingency plant. It is one of the pre-emptive measures aimed at protecting our nuclear technology and human work force. It is a small version of Natanz," he said, referring to Iran's other nuclear facility in central Iran.
"This is to show that the Islamic Republic of Iran won't allow its nuclear activities to stop under any circumstances even for a moment."
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.
A Western diplomat whose country is on the IAEA's 35-nation board and who has access to intelligence on Iran's nuclear activities, said there was no evidence of other secret sites. But if Iran's intention had been to keep the enrichment plant secret, it would be logical to build a related site nearby, feeding it nuclear material.
Israel has portrayed the latest disclosures as proof of its long-held assertion that Iran seeks nuclear weapons and is a strategic threat. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that Israel is keeping all its options open, suggesting a pre-emptive military strike on nuclear facilities is still a possibility.
However, some Israeli analysts believe the disclosure of the new nuclear facility could actually put off an Israeli strike because it increases the chances the international community will impose harsher sanctions.
"If there ever was a thought of going with a military option, it's been put off," said Ephraim Kam, the deputy director of Tel Aviv University's Institute of National Security Studies.
"Iran was caught lying again, it's clearly moving toward becoming a nuclear power," he said. "Now the Americans are better able to try to persuade the Europeans, and even the Russians, to go for tougher sanctions."
Salehi said Tuesday the new site is about 60 miles south of Tehran on the road leading to Qom — placing it in the same location as satellite imagery showing a well-fortified facility built into a mountain about 20 miles northeast of Qom.
The images, provided by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, show ventilation shafts and a nearby surface-to-air missile site that indicate it is being constructed to withstand a potential offensive strike, according to defense consultancy IHS Jane's, which did the analysis of the imagery. The image was taken in September.
GlobalSecurity.org analyzed images from 2005 and January 2009, when the site was in an earlier phase of construction, and believes the facility is constructed of heavily reinforced concrete and is about the size of a football field — large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges used to refine uranium.
Salehi said the location was selected after a careful study by the authorities. He said it was a formerly an ammunition depot before his agency took control of it a year ago and started construction that will eventually house a uranium enrichment plant.