President Obama and officials in his administration knew about Iran's secret underground nuclear plant near Qom for "some time," senior administration officials said today, but they held off on presenting the intelligence until they could make the strongest case.
"It's a highly contentious issue that, as we're seeing today, the Iranians are objecting to," a senior administration official tells ABC News. "As a general matter we wanted to make sure we have the best intelligence possible."
After Iran's secret underground uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz was discovered in 2002 -- with 8,000 centrifuge machines, a stockpile of 1,400 kilogram of low enriched uranium -- US intelligence expected Iran would try again to build another secret facility.
"Not surprisingly, we found one," a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing today.
They found it near the city of Qom, "heavily protected and heavily disguised."
Over the summer, intelligence officials from the US, UK, and France worked on making a presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency about the Qom facility.
Its construction in itself is in violation of Iran's agreement with the IAEA, officials say.
In March 2007, Iran informed the IAEA that it felt it no longer believed it needed to comply with a 2003 agreement with the IAEA to provide design information for any nuclear facilities “as soon as the decision to construct, or to authorize construction, of such a facility has been taken, whichever is earlier.” A legal adviser for the IAEA ruled that agreements could be "changed by agreement between” Iran and the IAEA, but not unilaterally, and thus Iran's announcement was not in compliance with its international obligations..
The Qom facility is not yet operational, officials said; it's at least a few months away from that. They estimate that the facility has roughly 3,000 centrifuge machines -- not enough to "make sense for commercial use," an official said, but the "right size" if one were looking to make a little weapons-grade uranium.
All along Iran has not been complying with other IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program. In June 2008, IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei reported that Iran was continuing uranium enrichment and heavy-water reactor programs in violation of Security Council resolutions.
As the intelligence agencies built their case about the Qom facility over the Summer, they also "learned that the Iranians learned that their security had been compromised," an official said. On Monday, the IAEA received a letter from Iranian authorities informing the agency about a "pilot scale enrichment plan," the official said, with a pledge to provide more information.
On that letter, Iranian leaders now seem to be hanging their hats.
"If it was a covert plant, we would not have informed the (International Atomic Energy) Agency," a senior Iranian official told Reuters on Friday.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad has been defiant, telling the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday night that "all our nuclear activities are transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes of IAEA inspectors. Why then are there objections to our legally recognized rights?"
On Friday Ahmadinejad told TIME Magazine that, "If I were Obama's adviser, I would definitely advise him to refrain making this statement because it is definitely a mistake. It would definitively be a mistake." He said that Iran is not obligated to "inform Mr. Obama's administration of every facility that we have."
Obama administration officials dismissed the letter to the IAEA as "too little, too late," and "a very cursory admission to the IAEA years after construction of such a facility whose use is undeniable does not constitute living up to its obligations."
A senior Obama administration official says that the IAEA today approached Iranian officials seeking specific information about and access to the Qom facility as soon as possible.
As for whether China would go along with the sanctions that Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have alluded to in recent days, a senior administration official says "China is just now fully absorbing these latest revelations. I think we should stay tined for the Chinese position in the coming days."