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Iran defiant over new nuclear plant

World leaders have demanded that UN nuclear inspectors be given access to a previously secret Iranian plant and have threatened to impose tough new sanctions on Tehran.

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US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday that Tehran has admitted to the UN nuclear watchdog that it has built a second uranium enrichment plant.

Following their declaration, Russia expressed its concern and China said it has taken note of the information and has urged Tehran to cooperate with any probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Western leaders made it clear they do not believe that the site has a civilian role, being what one US official said is “the right size” to produce weapons-grade uranium but of no use for nuclear fuel production.

“We expect the IAEA to immediately investigate this disturbing information and to report to the IAEA board of governors,” Obama said, branding the new plant a “direct challenge” to international non-proliferation rules.

Iran remains defiant

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters in New York that Iran had informed the UN’s international nuclear watchdog about the plant’s existence and “should be encouraged for that. It was perfectly legal.”

The head of Tehran’s nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the mystery second plant had been built to ensure Iran could continue to refine uranium even in the event of foreign air raids on its other sites.

“Considering the threats, our organisation decided to do what is necessary to preserve and continue our nuclear activities,” he told Iranian television.

“So we decided to build new installations which will guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activities which will never stop at any cost.”

French President calls for sanctions

Sarkozy backed Obama’s tough stance, and threatened rapid sanctions if Iran does not agree to talks on its nuclear program at talks with the international six-nation contact group on October 1.

“It was designed and built over the past several years in direct violation of resolutions from the Security Council and from the IAEA,” he said of the plant, during his joint appearance with Obama and Brown at the G20 summit.

“We already face a severe breakdown of trust. We are now faced with a challenge, a challenge to the entire international community,” he said, demanding that Iranian negotiators change their stance.

“In December, if there is not an in-depth change in Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken,” he said.

British PM: international community shocked and angered

Brown said the scale of the Iranian “serial deception of many years” in hiding the plant for many years “will shock and anger the whole international community and it will harden our resolve”.

“The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand,” he said, warning that Iran faces “further more stringent sanctions”.

At a later briefing with journalists, Brown said the plant “could not have been for a civil nuclear facility”.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the revelation that Iran had been holding back information on the Qom plant will encourage countries that had been opposed to sanctions to toughen their position.

Russia adopts a softer tone

But Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, who earlier this week appeared to signal he was warming to the Western position, stopped short of dropping Moscow’s opposition to new sanctions, despite expressing concern.

“We call on Iran to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” Medvedev said in a statement read out by his spokeswoman Natalya Timakova, also at the G20 summit.

“Russia maintains a commitment to serious dialogue with Iran with a view to reaching agreement on efficient ways to remove the concerns of the international community over this country’s nuclear program.”

China asks Iran to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog

China has been told of the second Iranian uranium enrichment plant and has asked Tehran to cooperate with the UN nuclear watchdog in any probe on the issue, Chinese government spokesman Ma Zhao Xu said.

“It is our hope that Iran will cooperate with the IAEA on this matter.”

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has been holding intelligence information on the secret plant for “some time” and believes it houses 3,000 centrifuge machines.

But he added the plant will not be operational for at least a few months.

The IAEA earlier said Iran had sent a letter on September 21 to inform the watchdog “that a new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country”, agency spokesman Marc

Vidricaire said in a statement.

“The IAEA has requested Iran to provide specific information and access to the facility as soon as possible.”