By Sam Youngman - 09/25/09 12:35 PM EDT
PITTSBURGH — President Obama challenged Iran on Friday to abandon an underground nuclear program and take “concrete actions” to ensure the world it will comply with international law.
Obama said he expects the IAEA to begin an immediate investigation into the “disturbing information” and that he and the rest of the international community want Iran’s full cooperation.
Congressional leaders, including senior members of key panels, were briefed in the 24 hours leading up to the announcement, the administration officials said. More briefings will take place on Friday.
The announcement immediately overshadowed the G-20 summit, which is focused on efforts to help the world economy rebound from economic crisis. It is also likely to set off fireworks on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have already criticized the administration for not being tough enough on Iran.
Administration officials said the IAEA has already approached Iran, and the president is hopeful the agency will move quickly with Iran’s cooperation. The officials portrayed the disclosure of intelligence on Iran’s activities as a “victory” for the international community as it tries to halt Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The decision to brief the IAEA came after Iran sent a letter earlier this week informing the agency of the program. The new intelligence disclosure came just days after, officials said, when it was determined that the disclosure would aid in building an international consensus that Iran was defying its international obligations.
Iranian leaders have maintained that they are pursuing a peaceful nuclear fuel program, but Obama said Friday that “the size and configuration of the program is inconsistent with a peaceful program.”
Administration officials said the underground area is a “heavily protected, heavily disguised facility,” but is not “large enough to make any sense from a commercial standpoint.”
The logical purpose of such a facility, one official said, would be to enrich enough uranium for “a bomb or two a year.”
The official said Iran was “at least a few months, perhaps more” from installing 3,000 centrifuges.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined Obama and other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly this week but made no mention of the underground programs.
The administration officials said the U.S., France and Great Britain had held on to the information for years to ensure its accuracy. Obama was briefed on the intelligence during the transition, the officials said.
Republicans said the revelations about Iran’s nuclear program illustrate the faults of Obama’s campaign promises to engage with that country.
They have already criticized Obama for not being forceful enough with Iran when violent protests in Tehran broke out after the re-election of Ahmadinejad in a polls his opponents have claimed was rigged .
Obama also came under fire last week for announcing the U.S. was pulling back on the Bush administration’s missile defense plans for Europe, which had been focused on containing Iran.
“Unfortunately, the administration has not, to date, given Iran reason to believe we are serious about preventing them from acquiring or developing a nuclear capability, especially in light of the administration’s recent policy decision regarding missile defense in Central Europe and its public remarks about Israel and the Middle East peace process,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
But administration officials noted that the nuclear program has been under development since the Bush administration.
Boehner also said that the U.S. should be ready to act without China and Russia if the two countries will not agree to be more forceful in dealing with Iran.
Obama, Sarkozy and Brown all said they are still committed to negotiating with Iran, but demanded that it come to the table on Oct. 1 ready to demonstrate “meaningful dialogue and concrete actions.” Those talks would be with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the U.S., France, Great Britain, Russia and China.
“It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations,” Obama said.
Obama said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to be associated with the tough words, but she could not be in attendance at the statement.
Sarkozy and Brown offered full support for Obama.
Sarkozy called for increased sanctions to be levied if Iran has not backed down and fully cooperated by December.
Brown said the Iranian government's actions left other nations with “no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
In New York earlier this week, Obama met with the leaders of China and Russia and pressed them to take a hard line on Iran. Both countries have resisted imposing sanctions against Iran in the past, but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered a statement this week regarding Iran that stated, “in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.”
Medvedev and Chinese President Hu did not join Obama, Sarkozy and Brown. Senior administration officials said the countries were still digesting the news.
Medvedev was given some advanced notice of the intelligence disclosure. Hu, however, was not given a heads up even though Iran was a "centerpiece" of the bilateral meeting between Obama and the Chinese president, an administration official said. China has been consulted in the last 24 to 48 hours.
“China is just now fully absorbing these latest revelations,” one official said. “I think we should stay tuned for the Chinese position in the coming days.”