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Barack Obama: Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Iranian Nuclear Facility
Barack
Barack Obama
Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Iranian Nuclear Facility
September 25, 2009
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9:26 A.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to go quickly through the rules as we get started here, if everybody is ready to go. We're doing this obviously off camera and on the background as senior administration officials.

I will turn this over to my colleague to walk you through some of the information that has been disclosed overnight. And we will, at the end of this process, take your questions. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. What I'm going to do is focus on the history and background of this issue, in particular the technical elements and why we've made decisions to go ahead and brief the IAEA and reveal the existence of this facility, which we've known about for some time. Then I'm going to ask my colleague to talk about the diplomatic state of play, focusing in on the upcoming October 1st meeting, which President Obama and Prime Minister Brown and President Sarkozy made very clear is going to be critical in terms of seeing concrete action from Iran to reassure the international community and to correct the violations of Iran's international commitments.

Let me start with a bit of history. Just to remind all of you that the Iranian nuclear issue first became public back in 2002, when it was revealed that Iran was building a secret underground enrichment facility, which we now know as the Natanz facility. Once the Iranians were caught building the secret underground enrichment facility with centrifuge machines in it, they were forced to declare the facility, to allow the IAEA inspectors to inspect the facility and to place it under safeguards.

Now, Iran has continued to build that facility despite a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that they completely suspend all activity there. And the state of play in Natanz is well known from the IAEA reports in terms of the Iranians having about 8,000 centrifuge machines there, about half of which are producing low-enriched uranium at a rate of about two kilograms a day. And they have accumulated a stockpile of about 1,400 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. So we know what's going on at the Natanz facility because it's under IAEA safeguards.

Now, it was evident to everybody, both the United States and our allies, that if the Iranians wanted to pursue a nuclear weapons option the use of the Natanz facility was a very unattractive approach; because the IAEA inspectors were there, it would be noticed if Iran tried to produce weapons-grade uranium at that facility, or if they expelled the IAEA inspectors, everybody would assume that they were converting the facility to produce weapons-grade uranium.

So the obvious option for Iran would be to build another secret underground enrichment facility, and our intelligence services, working in very close cooperation with our allies, for the past several years have been looking for such a facility. And not surprisingly, we found one. So we have known for some time now that Iran was building a second underground enrichment facility. And as the President mentioned this morning, it's located near the city of Qom, a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility. We believe that it's not yet operational. We think it's most likely at least a few months, perhaps more, from having all of the centrifuges installed and being capable of operating if the Iranians made a decision to begin operating it.

Our information is that the facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines. Now, that's not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint. It cannot produce a significant quantity of low-enriched uranium. But if you want to use the facility in order to produce a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, enough for a bomb or two a year, it's the right size. And our information is that the Iranians began this facility with the intent that it be secret, and therefore giving them an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it.

Now, as I said, we've been aware of this facility for several years; we've been watching the construction, we've been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant. We also learned that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised. So they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid and --

Q: When was that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me?

Q: When was that? When did they learn that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't be precise. All I can say is that fairly recently -- and recognizing that they might then choose to disclose the facility themselves, we worked with our allies -- the U.K. and the French -- to put together a briefing, an extraordinarily detailed briefing, for the IAEA, because we anticipated that we would need to provide that briefing to the agency so that they would be able to conduct a proper investigation -- not just of the facility itself, but of the support facilities that are producing materials and equipment for this facility, what the Iranian decision-making process and intent was to build this facility.

It's important to recognize that when the IAEA investigates they don't just go to one facility, they try to understand how it fits in with the overall intent of a country's nuclear program.

Now, earlier this week, as President Obama said, we learned that Iran sent a letter to the IAEA which in very vague terms disclosed that Iran was constructing a "pilot-scale enrichment plant" designed to produce 5 percent enriched uranium, and that the Iranians would provide additional information in the future as appropriate. Well, based on that letter, we felt it was important that we proceed quickly to brief the IAEA so that they can conduct an adequate investigation. And as the President said, we carried out that briefing in Vienna yesterday. And the IAEA, I'm happy to say, is following up very vigorously. You can ask them, of course, but my understanding is that they're seeking access to this facility as soon as possible. And no doubt they will be reporting to the Board of Governors on the results of their investigations.

Now, we think, as the President said, this is another example, if we needed one, to remind us that the history of Iran's program is very disturbing. The Security Council -- several Security Council resolutions since 2006 has demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related activities. This program is obviously a violation of that -- of those Security Council resolutions.

The safeguards agreement between Iran and the IAEA requires Iran to declare nuclear facilities as soon as they begin construction. Now, in March of 2007, Iran unilaterally said it did not feel bound by that element of its safeguards agreement. And we know construction of the facility began even before the Iranians unilaterally said that they did not feel bound by that obligation.

So clearly this is inconsistent, in my view; obviously a violation of their safeguards agreement. The IAEA will obviously be investigating that and making a report to the Board of Governors as they pursue their investigation.

One last thing I want to say. This was very sensitive intelligence information. But nonetheless, in order to build a coalition with the P5-plus-1, we are taking the extraordinary step of sharing as much of the information as we can with the other countries that are part of this group -- the Russians, the Chinese, and the Germans. And they are studying that information. We'll be engaging with them. I think that it will benefit our diplomatic efforts to once again reveal that Iran is carrying out nuclear activities in secret in violation of their international obligations.

And I think you've seen that our strategy has already begun to bear fruit. As you all know, in the meeting earlier this week between President Obama and President Medvedev, President Medvedev talked about the possibility of needing to use sanctions if diplomacy failed. President Obama and President Hu also had extensive discussions on the question of how to deal with Iran, and obviously the October 1st meeting of the P5-plus-1 in Iran is going to be a critical test of Iran's intention.

Q: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, Hans, we'll get to questions in a second.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, what I'd like to do, since I've talked about the October 1st, I'd like to ask my colleague to talk a little bit about that. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good morning. I'm just going to mention a few things about the diplomatic track. As I'm sure most of you know, in April of this year, the P5 countries, the permanent members of the Security Council, and Germany, met in London to address the diplomatic track. They reaffirmed the proposal that's been on the table for quite a while since June 2008, and they called on Iran to begin engagement, to begin direct negotiations.

There was a lot of support for the policies of the new Obama administration for having a tough, direct dialogue with Iran. So this offer was made repeatedly. The Iranians refused to meet, refused to accept this offer. The President has been making clear for quite some time that it's important for the international community to take stock of the situation, and he specifically talked about September and the beginning of the U.N. General Assembly when world leaders would be coming together to evaluate Iran's seriousness in addressing the concerns of the international community. I think Iran was feeling the pressure that was being put on them, and they agreed to hold a meeting of the P5-plus-1 countries on October 1st in Geneva.

This is going to be a critical opportunity for Iran to demonstrate that it's willing to address the very serious concerns that have been raised about its intentions in the nuclear area.

I think all P5-plus-1 countries are united. Two days ago in New York, foreign ministers of those countries issued a strong statement. They demonstrated that they are unified. They reaffirmed what we call a dual-track policy, engagement on the one hand but pressure and sanctions if Iran does not negotiate seriously.

So October 1st will be a serious test of Iran's willingness to address these concerns, and as a result of the initiative taken today to reveal this previously undisclosed site, this matter will be on the agenda of October 1st. Iran will be pressed to cooperate with the IAEA's investigation of this very disturbing situation.

We hope that there will be tangible progress. But it's up to Iran. It's up to Iran to respond in a concrete way to the offers that are on the table and to address the concerns of the world community.

That's all I'll say for now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We'll start with a few questions. We've got plenty of time, so we'll work around here.

Jake.

Q: I have a question for each of the gentlemen. Sir, yesterday a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing spoke against the idea of sanctions for Iran. I was wondering if you could talk about that. And sir, if -- how many secret nuclear facilities do you think Iran has?

Q: Can you repeat the question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Jake's question was to respond to a statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry yesterday about their reticence on sanctions. And secondly, a question that he's not going to answer, which -- how many secret nuclear facilities does Iran have and to list them in alphabetical order.

Q: Do you think there's more than this one?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We've been consulting with the Chinese in the last 24 and 48 hours. As you heard, the intelligence on this was developed by the U.S., the U.K., and France. And China is just now fully absorbing these latest revelations. I think we should stay tuned for the Chinese position in the coming days now that they -- now that they are aware of this new information. The statement they made was before our most recent discussions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Obviously I'm not in a position to answer that, but I would just say this, that given Iran's history of pursuing secret nuclear activities and given the logic of them trying to develop secret facilities as the safest way for them to build nuclear weapons if they make that political decision. We're obviously going to be very vigilant in continuing our efforts to try to detect such facilities if they exist.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Jake, let me just add to that. I think, obviously, our understanding and knowledge of the existence of this facility for quite some time is a great testament to our intelligence community and the work that they have done and are continuing to do to give us the very best intelligence in the world.

Chuck.

Q: When was this intelligence shared with the Russians? Was it this week, ahead of the President's comments in New York?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question was, when was this intelligence shared with the Russians? We're going to bring up for that one another senior administration official who deals with -- NSC -- with this question.

Q: I see you've got the full team here.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're here to serve, Chuck.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the question.

Q: When was this information shared with the Russian delegation? For example, did they know it before President Medvedev made the most recent comments he made in New York this week?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right around that time, and we've been in deliberations with them all the way through, including last night, in capitals. It was shared --

Q: Before or after the bilat?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At or around the time of the bilat.

Q: Was it shared at the meeting between the Presidents?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We had a chance to have our President speak directly about this issue in the bilat.

Yes.

Q: And somebody else, if possible. Can you do the sanctions without Russian support? Can you impose new sanctions without Russia's support?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the whole purpose of having -- can you impose sanctions without Russian support -- I would just say this. The whole purpose of building up, talking with the Russians, discussing this issue over numerous times, I remind you, is the subject -- the main subject of the July summit. It was the main subject of the bilateral meeting we had in New York -- we have been speaking with the Russians since then to this very point -- is to have a very coordinated policy in terms of a P5-plus-1 outcome.

About that, that's a different question, but that's the objective with the Russians.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm going to get my colleague to add something to this. I just want to be clear. The information was shared during the bilateral meeting. We, as my colleague said, worked last night and continue to work with the Russians as they look through intelligence and get a better understanding of what we know.

Do you want to add to the -- oh, you're good?

Q: I'm good. And if I may, what is your idea? Can the sanctions be imposed without support from Russia and China?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, at this point, what you've heard everyone say -- I know what you've heard the President and the two leaders say this morning, we are focused on -- we are focused on meetings that will happen next week on October the 1st. We believe there are substantial responsibilities that the Iranians, certainly in light of this information, must meet. They have a path and an opportunity to do -- to finally do what's right. I think you heard, though, the President say very clearly, not addressing this, not owning up to it, and not taking substantial action to stop it will -- people will be held accountable.

Jonathan.

Q: A couple of technical questions. First, if the facility is not complete and they have not received enriched -- or I mean uranium to enrich -- can you say in what way that the Iranians might be closer to a nuclear weapon?

And secondly, I thought under the NPT the Iranians weren't obligated to report it to the IAEA until they were bringing fuel in. So could you tell me if there was some kind of change to the arrangement there?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Did everyone hear -- want us to still repeat the questions? You want to go ahead?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. As to your first question, I think the revelation of this facility and the fact that Iran will be forced, I believe, at the end of the day, because of international pressure, to allow the IAEA to inspect this facility and place it under safeguards, it sets their nuclear weapons program back. So this is a victory, in terms of making it more difficult for them to develop a nuclear weapons capacity, just as the discovery of Natanz and the fact that they were forced to put that under inspection set the program back.

Now, as to your second question, as I mentioned earlier, in a modern safeguards agreement, which the IAEA has with all countries that have a comprehensive safeguards agreement, countries are obligated to report to the agency as soon as they make a decision, as soon as they begin construction of a nuclear facility. And the purpose of that is to make sure that the safeguards are designed to fit with the technical characteristics of the facility.

Now, in March, as I said, in March of 2007, Iran unilaterally announced that it no longer considered itself obligated by that provision of its safeguards agreement, which obviously is -- sets off some alarm bells if you suspect that they may be trying to conceal nuclear activities.

Q: Is that a technical violation of IAEA rules?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it is. I think it clearly is. I mean, obviously the IAEA will be investigating this, and we would expect them to report on that to the Board of Governors.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Chuck. Oh, hold on.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I just add this -- after the -- in March 2007, after the Iranians pulled back and said they're no longer bound by this, the IAEA issued a legal ruling saying countries are not able legally unilaterally to pull back from this. There has to be an agreement with the IAEA to change the rules of the game. So according to the IAEA, Iran is still bound to notify the agency at the time a decision is made to construct a new facility.

Now, no matter what interpretation you put on this, Iran began construction of that facility at a time when they were legally bound to declare it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Chuck.

Q: Walk us a little bit through the IAEA investigative process. So obviously you guys are calling on them to comply immediately. You've got the talks on October 1st. When do they go in? I mean, and will they go in without Iranian permission? I mean, I guess, and how quickly will this investigative process take the IAEA?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We'll walk you through the IAEA investigative process.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the IAEA has been very vigorous in the last couple of years since the 2002 revelation in rooting out the history of Iran's nuclear program and keeping it under safeguards. I would expect them, based on that track record, to very vigorously follow the information that's available to them and all the leads they have.

Now, how quickly they get into the facility, that's a decision for Iran to make. Obviously we, the entire P5-plus-1, are going to be pressing for access as soon as possible. Certainly we hope that takes --

Q: Is it at the top of the agenda October 1st?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, this -- I think this is clearly going to be a very significant item on the agenda, and I think, in our view, as the President said, Iran needs to take concrete action to demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful, because the evidence we have available certainly doesn't suggest that.

Q: Does that end up delaying the sanction threat? The French President today said December. Does that delay -- if they say, okay, fine, IAEA can come inspect what we're doing -- does that delay the sanction threat? I mean, does this say -- could they slow-walk this process by using the IAEA?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question is whether the insertion of IAEA inspectors somehow slows down the imposition of sanctions. I'd just say a couple things. My colleague, my senior administration official colleague here reports that the IAEA has already approached the Iranians based on this information. That is indicative, I think, of indisputable fact that there is, at the moment, an amount of international consensus and cooperation, not to mention impatience, with Iran's suspect nuclear facility, or nuclear program, as President Medvedev said with the President on Wednesday, that this international consensus is a source of great leverage on the Iranians.

And the point here, Chuck, I think is not to look at what will happen with the sanctions. The question is, what will the Iranians do now that the international community, as united as it is in confronting Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the information that we have confronted them with, what steps specifically will they take to allay this international consensus, cooperation, and sense of impatience.

Q: Did you reach out to --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just -- hold on one sec -- hold on one second. Let me just -- before I take another question, I want to read very specifically -- to reiterate what has just been said, what the IAEA said about this today:

"In response, the IAEA has requested Iran to provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible. This will allow the agency to assess safeguards, verification requirements for the facility." That, I believe, can be found on their Web site.

April.

Q: Everyone has talked about diplomacy, talking about October 1, and then you had Sarkozy talking about punishment in December. Is the President -- is the President on the same wavelength as Sarkozy? I guess because you've gone down this road, other administrations have gone down this road so many times before, is he -- is everyone looking at, beyond the present, or is the President in line with this -- at punishment, at more sanctions?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As one of my colleagues suggested over the summer, senior administration policymakers asked that our intelligence community work together with our French and U.K. counterparts to develop a consensus intelligence presentation to the IAEA about the information that we all have related to this covert facility. That is indicative of the deep cooperation and consensus among these three, as well as, as we've seen demonstrated just on Wednesday evening, with the P5-plus-1 foreign ministers' statement about what we expect from Iran -- all indications of the deep consensus and growing impatience among the international community about Iran's suspect nuclear program.

The fact of the matter is that it will be Iran now that determines what happens as it relates to that international consensus. If they take the opportunity at the October 1 meeting to allay the concerns of the international community about the wholly peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, that's one thing. If they choose not to, that's quite another. But we ought not get ahead of ourselves on exactly what steps will be taken thereafter, because at the moment it's less about the international community, which, as I've suggested, is more united and operating in a more consensual fashion that ever on this issue, but rather it will be based on what the Iranians choose.

Q: Realistically, what are you expecting from China after all of this IAEA --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look, I think as my colleague just said, we're in the process of -- we have obviously begun to brief all of the members of the P5-plus-1, and they're in the process of looking through and digesting the information that the world now knows.

Q: Can you give us some sequencing of those briefings? Russia was briefed before China? Or the intelligence was shared with Russia before China?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think the intelligence was shared principally at the same time.

Q: That was before you guys briefed the IAEA yesterday?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it was not. It was after.

Q: But I thought that the meeting with Medvedev was Wednesday.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Don't confuse -- don't confuse the notion that, in a bilateral meeting with Medvedev, this was brought up. But the formal sharing of a much more technical assessment, as was done by the three intelligence agencies yesterday afternoon in Vienna, that's now happened post-bilat. That would not be done in the course of a bilateral with --

Q: That briefing was not given to the Russians on Wednesday? It was given --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes --

Q: Did you speak with the -- did you speak with the Israelis?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hold on one second. Just everyone calm down. We're going to get --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can we just walk through this? Wednesday night, political leadership in New York was given a heads-up. Thursday, the joint intelligence presentation was made to the IAEA by the three intelligence services.

Q: Thursday morning or Thursday afternoon?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thursday afternoon, Vienna time. Today we are sharing, at a technical level, the intelligence about the facility. So we're going through this very methodically. Obviously the President in the bilateral also gave President Medvedev a heads-up about what we knew.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Michael. Hold on, Jonathan. Michael.

Q: Could you help me understand the timing of this? These facilities, obviously, are harder to get rid of once they're built. So if you all knew about this -- not you guys, in this case -- but several years ago, was there some reason why it didn't make sense to alert the world to the impending construction of the thing back then, and not have to then contend with a nearly completed one?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think it would be a terrible mistake if we prematurely disclosed the facility, because at a very early stage of construction, a facility like this could have multiple uses. So we thought it was very important to wait until the facility had reached the stage of construction where it was undeniably intended for use as a centrifuge facility.

So, from our standpoint -- and of course it takes years to build these facilities -- and also we were building the case so that we felt that we were in a very strong position when the time came -- because we knew eventually this time would come -- we would want to brief the IAEA as well as the other countries we're working with. So that explains the delay.

Q: Was there ever a concern about intelligence? Was there ever a concern about faulty intelligence?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: April, April, let's do this one at a time. You've had a crack. Let's get around the room.

Q: Have you talked to Israel about this, and are they on board, and are they part of --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just go back to your point, your first question, and then we can answer the next one.

The President was first briefed on this during the transition. He was very insistent, as he has been on this issue since day one, that this is an issue that needed to be addressed urgently. And obviously, as my colleagues have made clear, we've been aware of this facility now for several years. The President became aware of it as President-elect and we have been working quite aggressively with our friends to make sure we have a very solid case to present to the IAEA, having learned that such intelligence presentations have to be made in a very credible fashion because of the nature of the charges.

As it relates to your question about Israel, they are aware of the facility and the announcement that we're making today. And it's our understanding that they're -- I think you answered whether they were on board. There's not a particular thing for them to be on board with, but I think it is fair to represent that they see that this path is obviously advancing our interest in delaying the Iranian nuclear program.

Q: A couple of questions. Can you confirm that the construction of this facility was started before Ahmadinejad? And last year, there was an intelligence report that calls -- or assessment -- because it cast doubt about the fact that Iran was actually pursuing nuclear weapons. Is this your understanding now that Iran is definitely after nuclear weapons, or is it the intelligence assessment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think both of those questions, while good, are not something that, based on intelligence, we feel comfortable getting into here.

Jon.

Q: Two quick questions. When President Obama met with President Hu on Wednesday prior to his meeting I think with Medvedev, was Hu given the same heads-up that Medvedev was given? And secondly -- so, first, was Hu given the same heads-up as Medvedev? Secondly -- secondly, did any of our other allies -- did we share this information with anybody prior to this week? Did anybody know of it? Did the U.K. and France know about it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think as we mentioned, from the very beginning the U.S. has been working closely with both the U.K. and France in terms of both sharing the information that we had available among ourselves and in doing the analysis. And furthermore, making sure that this intelligence cooperation was closely lashed up with our diplomatic strategy. So there's been, I think, really extraordinarily close cooperation, which is pretty unusual when you're dealing with this kind of sensitive information among those three allies, not only in terms of intelligence work together but also making sure how the intelligence supports and reinforces our diplomatic efforts.

Q: And can you say how far back the intelligence-sharing between the U.K. and France and the U.S. --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, we don't want to get into -- too specifically into the intel.

Q: What about President Hu?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Iran issue was extensively discussed in President Obama's meeting with President Hu. And in fact, I would say it was the centerpiece to the meeting. But this particular facility was not discussed. The bilat was before the one with Medvedev. So it was not discussed then.

Q: Why was that a reason for not discussing it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry?

Q: Why was that a reason for not discussing it, the fact that it was prior to Medvedev?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There were discussions that were going on at different levels with us and the Chinese on that.

Yes, sir.

Q: Yes, do you expect the G20 to support this, you know, at some -- to express some kind of declaration of support? I mean, we are here with all these countries that could strengthen -- you know, big international declaration? Do you expect a statement later?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll have one of these guys address that. I know that throughout yesterday evening, and I know today, we have had at, again, various levels discussions with member states that are here, sharing with them also information that we've learned.

I don't -- do you have anything on a statement?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't have anything on that now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't have anything right now.

Major.

Q: In the public presentation this morning, President Medvedev was not there. Was there an effort to invite him? Should the public read anything into his absence, either that he's ambiguous about the importance of this information or his willingness to pursue sanctions? And secondarily, the President sounded less aggressive than either Prime Minister Brown or French President Sarkozy. Was there any particular reason for holding his rhetoric back as compared to those two?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me take a crack at the second one, and my colleague will do as well.

Q: Can you repeat the question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I'm sorry. The second question was, Major said he detected some softer language on the part of the President than with the two others. I would simply say, I think if you read clearly the statement of the President, if you read clearly the statements that President Obama has made within several feet of Mr. Medvedev just the other day, I think it's pretty clear that the President has stated what has to happen, that Iran, as my colleague said earlier, has a choice that they need to make in the next week, and that failure to live up to their international obligations will hold them accountable for that.

And I think if you look back at the statements that the President has made even dating back to a pool spray we did in the Oval Office where he talked about that this was an issue that would be addressed by the end of the year, I think it's pretty clear not just the three up there but many others are on the same page. I'll let my colleague take a --

Q: The degrees of Sarkozy and Brown and what they said?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think all three of them, as well as others, are on the same page as many in the international community continue to be in collectively addressing this threat. The first question to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, Major, the briefers today -- or the presenters today were the heads of government or heads of state of the three intelligence services that briefed the IAEA yesterday. So the bottom line is, those are the possessors of the particular set of information and intelligence that was shared yesterday. So as a result, we thought that made the most sense to have them represented on the stage, not anything other than -- not anything other than that.

And certainly as it relates to my colleague's point, I'd just go back to a response to a question here. I think, as you've seen during the course of this week, there is a degree of consensus and cooperation and a depth of growing impatience shared among the international community; the P5-plus-1; the IAEA, as demonstrated in the statement my colleague read; and many others as it relates to Iran's suspect nuclear program.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Margaret.

Q: If you'd be willing to answer, could you tell us which of the three allies -- the U.S., the U.K., or France -- first discovered this intelligence? And can you be any more specific on the year?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into -- I'm not going to get into depth on intelligence matters.

Q: And when the President and President Medvedev spoke, did the Russian President seem surprised, or did the Russians also know this independently?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We've made it a practice not to characterize what others have said, and I think I would extend that to their emotions.

Q: -- in relation to all the countries that have been briefed, or was anyone else aware of this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'd rather just not get into that.

David. I'll come to you next, I'm sorry.

Q: The senior administration official made the point that you've known about this for a number of years, you did not want to reveal it too early because the nature of the facility was still, which you could imagine when they're excavating it. What and when did that assessment change? By the time you came into office, or was it later on this year, well into this year, that you came to the determination that in fact it was a centrifuge facility? And what is the -- what made you come to the judgment in the end that it was? Was it the actual installation of centrifuges? Was it the piping or something else?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think as I indicated, from the very beginning, we had information indicating that the intent of this facility was as a covert centrifuge facility. The point I was making is that we wanted to wait until the actual construction caught up with that intent. And I don't want to be too precise about when we think we reached that point, and these kinds of things are always a matter of degree. The further the construction proceeded, the stronger the case. So I would say that certainly within the last few months, we think we've had a very strong basis on which to make our argument, and that was part of the reason why we began this process of preparing a detailed briefing that could be shared with the IAEA and with other countries.

Q: And do you believe if and when the IAEA gets inside, will they find actual centrifuges installed, or do you think they will simply --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that's -- we'll have to wait for the IAEA to get inside there and to report back.

Q: Based on your assessment right now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Based on my assessment, I think that it will be, as I say, I think we have extremely good evidence -- we shared with the IAEA -- that this is a centrifuge facility.

Q: Just stepping back a bit, how far do you think Iran is away from developing a bomb, and how much -- can you elaborate on how much this disrupts that process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know that we'd get into a firm answer on the first one. I think you've heard my colleague and others say that the discovery of -- the international discovery of -- by all -- of a clandestine facility sets the program back because it's a facility that now is no longer secret. And as we said, the IAEA has requested immediate access to the facility. So I think this is a demonstration, again, of the good work of our intelligence services, the collective work of three countries and a big victory, as my colleague said, for setting this program and their timeline backwards.

Q: Some sense of a timeline is important, isn't it, because when people say why don't -- why aren't there sanctions now, why isn't there military action now -- you know, a sense of how much time there is to play with.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, I don't want to get into some of those hypotheticals, except to say, as many have said up here, we are pointing toward some very important discussions and meetings that will take place in one week. And the Iranians have decisions and obligations that they need to make and that they need to live up to, and in many ways, the ball is in their court.

Richard.

Q: Had this not been found out by the Iranians that our intelligence had determined this, would we have gone through this week -- would we have gone through the U.N., the G20, and would you go through the October 1st meeting still holding this secret? Or was it always the intent to bring this up at least with the Iranians on October 1st?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's kind of hard to go back and reinvent what may -- it's kind of like a, I don't know, a reverse hypothetical or something. What we are going to continue to do is what we've done now. It's a fact-based operation. We're collecting very good intelligence on a program about which we have deep concern and about which the international community is united in sharing that concern. And we will continue to do that and make decisions based on precisely that kind of fact-based information.

So I think it's impossible to turn back the clock and say what might have been otherwise, but what I do know is that we are driven by principle here, which is we are going to make these decisions based on facts, we're going to address this urgently, because it is an issue that requires both those principles.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Josh.

Q: Following up on that question, do you know what prompted -- or suspect what prompted Iran to make this disclosure to the IAEA on Monday? And was there something that either our intelligence services or the other two intelligence services did in the declassification or verification process that would have alerted the Iranians that we now knew about the facility?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, of course I can't speculate about Iranian decision-making and motivation, but I said in my opening statement that we believe that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility had been compromised, and therefore we anticipated that they might very well make a decision to disclose the facility in order to protect themselves, in order to try to defend themselves against the accusation that they were proceeding with a secret program. I think the evidence on the floor makes it very clear that they were proceeding with a secret program.

Q: You learned this before Monday?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.

Q: Back to the question about sanctions, are there not already sanctions in place against Iran? Could you just recap for us what those sanctions are that are already in place, and what sort of further sanctions are envisioned, and why would they be effective when the sanctions to date have not deterred the Iranians from pursuing its program?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are a wide range of penalties and sanctions already imposed. I would refer you to the five Security Council resolutions, which imposed a range of penalties on -- that have to do with inhibiting Iran's nuclear and missile programs and the requirement to have extreme vigilance in dealing with Iranian entities that might be associated with their nuclear and missile programs.

But in addition to these multilateral measures, these Security Council-mandated measures, there are a wide range of pressures that are being applied by the United States and by like-minded countries around the world, including our partners around the world, including our partners in Europe.

And so when it comes to sanctions, it's not just a matter of getting a Security Council consensus. There are other options as well, and my guess is that the Iranians are feeling the pressure from these national measures, as well as from the collective measures.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sam.

Q: Can you just give a sense to the extent if any congressional leadership was looped in on this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question was the degree to which congressional leaders have been looped in on it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have briefed the leadership of -- the elected leadership of both chambers, as well as the leaders of -- bipartisan leaders of key committees consistent with our obligations under existing practice to keep Congress currently and fully informed. We also note that we believe Congress is an important partner in this effort as it relates to moving forward on Iran, and it's obvious to us that Congress, like the rest of the international community and the partners that we've talked about today, shares the impatience with Iran and shares the consensus about -- the consensus and shared concern about the suspect nuclear program.

Q: When was Congress briefed?

Q: Wednesday night.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Congress has been briefed over the course of the last, I'd say, 24 hours. There has now been -- and they will continue to be briefed over the course of the next -- over the course of today.

So we obviously think that it's very important that we keep all of our partners at home informed and consulted, and we also are making sure that we're coordinating closely with our allies, not only in the P5-plus-1 but we've asked our ambassadors in key countries in the region as well as in Europe and in Asia to make sure that their colleagues in their capitals are aware of the decisions that we're taking over the course of these days.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just going to take a couple more questions, because I know everybody is busy.

Mark.

Q: I couldn't hear all the questions, but does the U.S. know how the -- how Iran came to find out that the U.S., the U.K., and France were aware of their secret program? Was there a leak somewhere?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're just not going to get into the intel on that.

Q: Now, by Iran going to the IAEA on Monday, did that beat you to the punch in briefing IAEA yesterday? Does it take them off the hook in any way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I'll let my colleague take a crack at this as well. Obviously you've heard them say very explicitly, both my colleagues have said the requirements that they must uphold when a decision is made about the beginning of construction, which is important. And I think it's pretty clear from the IAEA statements today that the very cursory amount of information that was contained in the letter was hardly a satisfactory level of disclosure.

We felt it, at that point, important to, as my colleague said, we have been working together, the three countries, to put together a presentation on this since the summer. The team felt it extremely important to get quickly to Vienna to give a broader, more technical readout on the facility that clearly the Iranians neither had nor were willing to do.

Q: Did the three nations know in advance of yesterday's briefing that Iran had notified IAEA?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I mentioned in my opening statement that we became aware, we were told by the IAEA that Iran had provided them with this letter.

I mean, I think that it's very clear that the Iranian letter to the IAEA is too little too late, given the history of the construction of this facility, given the obligations they have, both to the IAEA and to the U.N. Security Council.

I think the Iranians will no doubt try to defend themselves, but I think they are going to find a very tough audience. And I think as more information comes out about this facility, as the IAEA investigates and reports, I think it's going to become even more difficult for the Iranians to mount a plausible defense.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just one point to make clear. A key motivation of our briefing of the IAEA was to facilitate their investigation. The letter that Iran sent to the IAEA was very sparse, almost no detail and no promise of a follow-up. They talked about providing additional information at an appropriate and due time, whatever that means. So our briefing was really designed to facilitate the work of the IAEA.

Q: Do you have a clear idea of when the construction started? And second, President Sarkozy spoke about a December deadline. Does this timeline fit the expectations of the administration?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think we're going to get into the answer on the first question. On the second question, I'd reiterate what I said to Major, which was two things. One, these three countries have been working together for quite some time on this particular -- the intelligence around this particular facility. Obviously the leaders are together on this. I think you heard, as I reiterated, the President was quite clear in the Oval Office several months ago that the issue of Iran and its program were going to be dealt with this year, and I think that was very explicit.

Yes.

Q: Even before this revelation wasn't there supposed to be a deadline this week? And when we hear Sarkozy talk about December, how concerned are you that Iran will be taking these deadlines seriously anymore?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I think that what we've made clear coming out of the G8 meeting in L'Aquila was that there would be a stock-taking this week. I think there was that. I think that there was a very clear and firm statement from the P5-plus-1 foreign ministers on Wednesday evening. I think that there was great consensus among the P5-plus-1 at the presidential level as manifested a number of different ways, including the bilateral meeting among President Medvedev and President Obama. And so I think that -- and incidentally, I think that it was not noticed -- it did not go unnoticed that President Ahmadinejad missed an opportunity to elucidate their intentions in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly.

So I think this stock-taking effort continues. But I hasten to direct your attention to the fact that what will happen from here on out is dependent on the choices that the Iranians make. As my senior administration official colleague indicated, the discovery of this clandestine facility sets back the Iranian program and increases our leverage diplomatically. And we intend to make use of it.

Q: Can you sort of square the revelation of this facility with the special National Intelligence Estimate that recently said that Iran was still many years away from a nuclear weapon?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I don't think we'll add anything more to the record here than what we've said already.

Q: I hope I didn't miss this from somebody else, but have you been asked about this quote that Reuters is reporting from a senior Iranian official? Has anybody asked that? I haven't heard all the questions. Okay. A senior Iranian official tells Reuters that if it was a covert plant, we would not have informed the International Atomic Energy Agency. And basically they're saying that that letter indicates -- I guess they're saying that the letter indicates that it wasn't secret.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think that, as my colleagues have pointed out, I mean, this is a facility that's been under construction for years, that very cursory admission to the IAEA years after the commencement of construction of such a facility whose use is undeniable does not constitute living up to its obligations.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As we said before, this was inconsistent with an obligation that Iran has had to disclose the facility, to inform the IAEA at the time the decision is made to begin construction. Now, they claim that they have withdrawn from that requirement. The IAEA says they can't withdraw from that requirement. But in any event, this construction began before they attempted to withdraw. So no matter how you look at it, this is inconsistent with their safeguards requirements.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: April, we'll take one more, and then we're going to --

Q: Understanding that this facility was being built many years ago, was there a concern when you did find out, when -- administrations past and national security officials and whomever else found out early on that this was being built, was there ever a concern about faulty intelligence and that's why you kept looking into this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would just simply reiterate what my colleagues said before, which is we have worked -- the intelligence services of all three countries have worked together to put together an airtight case of intelligence that could be presented to the IAEA so that there would be no doubt as to exactly what this facility was and the intent of its use.

Obviously we wanted to ensure that that was done and that there would be no questions from that.

Q: Going back, you know, people have said that our intelligence was faulty in Iraq, and then they said with Iran it's been much worse. So was there ever -- I mean, was there a concern about faulty intelligence on this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think because of the diligence and the work that's been done, there is tremendous confidence in what was presented just yesterday in Vienna.

Thanks, guys.

END 10:29 A.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Iranian Nuclear Facility," September 25, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86684.
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