WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2009) – Revelations that Iran has covertly been building an underground nuclear-fuel processing plant belie the Iranian-government’s denials that it is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on the Sunday TV talk show circuit Sunday.
“We’ve been watching the construction of this facility for quite some time and one of the reasons that we’ve waited to make it public was to ensure that our conclusions about its purpose were right,” Gates told host John King on CNN’s State of the Union program.
President Barack Obama said yesterday in his weekly address that intelligence data has convinced the United States, the United Kingdom and France “that Iran has been building a secret nuclear facility to enrich uranium.”
The Iranian’s actions, Obama said, present “a serious challenge to the global nonproliferation regime, and continues a disturbing pattern of Iranian evasion.”
The United States and other members of the international community suspect that Iran is processing nuclear fuel to be used to construct nuclear weapons. Iran already has a uranium processing plant in Natanz.
Earlier this week at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Obama noted that the Iranians have been covertly constructing a new nuclear-fuel processing plant near Qom. That information and corroborating evidence of the Iranians’ actions, he said, have been provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Intelligence officials have been monitoring activities around Qom “at least a couple of years,” Gates said today on CNN.
“And, I think that certainly the intelligence people have no doubt that this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only because the Iranians kept it a secret,” Gates told King. “If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes there is no reason to put it so deep underground; no reason to be deceptive about it and keep it a secret for a protracted a period of time.”
Gates was asked by King about possible military options against Iran, in view of Iran’s apparent determination to acquire nuclear arms despite U.N. sanctions already in place to persuade it not to do so.
While the military option isn’t off the table, Gates said, the reality is “there is no military option that does anything more than buy time – the estimates are one-to-three years, or so” before Iran develops a nuclear weapon.”
And, “the only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran,” Gates said, “is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to (being) strengthened.”
There’s still room left for diplomacy, Gates said on CNN, as he noted the slated Oct. 1 negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany.
“The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers,” Gates told King, “and there obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions and I think we have the time to make that work.”
The United States is in close contact with its ally Israel, Gates said, noting the U.S. continues to urge the Israelis “to let this diplomatic economic-sanctions path play out.”
New U.N.-levied sanctions against Iran, Gates told King on CNN, could involve banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for Iran’s oil and gas industry.
Gates also appeared on ABC’s “This Week” TV program hosted by George Stephanopoulos. Gates gave Stephanopoulos his personal view that the Iranian government has the intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, but it may not yet have made a formal decision to move toward the development of nuclear weapons.
What’s critical now, Gates told Stephanopoulos, as he told King earlier, is persuading the Iranians that their security will be diminished by trying to get nuclear weapons rather than enhanced.
And, Iran’s contested presidential election, Gates said, has revealed political and societal “fissures in Iran” that haven’t been witnessed since the Islamic Revolution there 30 years ago.
If the Oct. 1 meeting “doesn’t work” to persuade Iran to jettison its desire for nuclear arms, Gates told Stephanopoulos, then “you begin to move in the direction of severe sanctions.”
And, imposing tougher sanctions against Iran, Gates said, would “have the potential” of causing the Iranians to change their policies.