Late Thursday night, two hours after it sent out President Barack Obama’s Friday schedule, the White House told reporters it was adding another event – a statement that he would give in the morning. Amid all the hoopla of the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, there was scant indication the announcement would be dramatic.
But behind the scenes, the Obama administration was furiously preparing for a major public intelligence disclosure that it had not planned to make: that the U.S. had known for years about a previously undisclosed clandestine nuclear enrichment facility Iran has been building since 2005 in a mountain near Qom.
Interviews with administration and international officials, diplomats, non-proliferation and Iran experts suggest the administration had no plans to announce its suspicions before beginning international talks with Iran next week. But its hand was forced after learning some time during the week of a letter Iran had sent the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna acknowledging construction of a previously undisclosed facility.
POLITICO has learned that the International Atomic Energy Agency did not notify the United States or other member states of the receipt of the Iranian letter or its contents. Only on Friday morning, a few hours before Obama’s announcement, and only then in a press statement that was prompted by news reports, did the IAEA acknowledge receiving the notification from Iran.
“Generally, communications from member states are supposed to be confidential,” one official in Vienna close to the atomic agency told POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “ I think in terms of notification, we generally don’t release member states’ communications unless the member state asks us to. A fundamental tenet of the agency and its members is that they have to be able to trust us.”
Indeed, one international official who asked for anonymity said that to this person’s knowledge, it was an Associated Press reporter in Vienna, George Jahn, who having learned of the Iranian letter, may have first tipped off western officials to its existence. Jahn broke the story of the letter by 5:55 a.m. EST Friday, but his reporting on it earlier earlier in the week may have been what eventually alerted U.S. officials to Iran’s communication with the IAEA.
An administration official declined to tell POLITICO how the U.S. had learned of the letter.
Shortly after the A.P. story broke, the IAEA sent out a press statement confirming that it had received a letter from Iran. “I can confirm that on 21 September Iran informed the IAEA in a letter that a new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country,” an IAEA spokesman said in a statement.
The IAEA statement indicated it was made in response to numerous calls following first the A.P. story, and shortly thereafter stories from Reuters, and the New York Times, which was apparently told about the U.S. intelligence by the White House on Thursday night, under an embargo lifted shortly before Obama’s statement.
At 8:30 am, Obama made the announcement, flanked by Britain’s Gordon Brown and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in a show of international unity. But the haste with which the event was pulled together was perhaps underscored by who was not with them in Pittsburgh.
Many of the key officials who work most closely on the Iran nuclear issue were still in New York, meeting with their foreign counterparts in town for the annual swirl of meetings that occur on the sidelines during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. Not in Pittsburgh, for instance, were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and Verification Ellen Tauscher or Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, the U.S. government point person to the international talks with Iran that begin next week in Geneva.
As Obama spoke, the administration sent out background guidance to Congress and the press with more information on the Qom facility.
“We learned earlier this week that Iran has sent the IAEA a letter indicating that it is constructing an enrichment facility but providing no detailed information that would enable the IAEA to monitor the site,” that White House-provided guidance said.
The guidance neither indicated when precisely in the past week, nor how, the administration had learned of the Iranian letter. It said that the U.S., Britain and France had briefed the IAEA in Vienna on Wednesday on what it knew of the Qom program.
“Iran’s letter was the trigger” for Obama’s announcement, a U.S. official told POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “The [Iranian] letter sent to the IAEA, how we learned about it, that I don’t know,” he continued. “It’s possible,” he added, “that it was via the media.”
Why would the White House have preferred not to publicly disclose its Qom evidence, seemingly something of a smoking gun for the case that Iran hasn’t been transparent about even its current nuclear activities? Why was it only prompted to make the announcement after it learned of Iran’s letter to the IAEA?
“Because the Iranians are trying to get in front and create an argument that they didn't do anything wrong,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s George Perkovich told POLITICO. “So to try to block that, Obama had to get [it] out. We would have been better off not announcing and keeping it as leverage and a way to see if the Iranians kept their word in a future deal.”