(CNSNews.com) – Throughout the negotiations over its nuclear program Iran has insisted that it will not shut a facility it secretly built deep in a mountainside, but reports from the eleventh hour talks in Switzerland now indicate that the U.S. and its P5+1 partners are considering giving in to the demand.
If true, their willingness to allow Iran to keep the underground site at Fordow would be a reversal of a condition the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany laid down in 2012.
Three years before that, President Obama and his French and British counterparts revealed the existence of the clandestine facility in a grim-faced joint announcement, accusing Iran of violating international non-proliferation norms, and saying the size and configuration of the complex was “inconsistent with a peaceful program.”
Now, according to unnamed officials cited in an exclusive Associated Press report, the U.S. is considering not only allowing Iran to keep the site open, but to operate several hundred centrifuges there.
The site would be open to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and the permitted work would be restricted. In exchange, Iran would agree to limitations on facilities elsewhere, it said.
The reported proposal marks a shift from the position taken by the P5+1 in mid-2012, when an offer it put on the table in talks in Baghdad included a demand to shut down Fordow.
“Under the American vision, Iran would halt all production of its 20 percent enriched uranium immediately, ship the existing stockpile out of the country and close the Fordow plant,” the New York Times wrote in an Oct. 2012 article.
By when an interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was reached with Iran late the following year, the position had shifted. Instead, Iran undertook to “not make any further advances of its activities” at Fordow, to cap uranium-enrichment there at five percent, and to allow IAEA inspectors daily access.
Negotiations on replacing the JPOA with a comprehensive nuclear agreement are now in their final days in Lausanne, Switzerland, with Secretary of State John Kerry leading the U.S. delegation.
Earlier this month the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, reiterated that keeping Fordow operating was a redline for Iran in any final deal.
“We are determined to make use of this site according to the guidelines of Iran’s Supreme Leader and AEOI’s technical needs,” he said.
‘An undue amount of trust’
At a background briefing on the nuclear talks last July, a senior administration official said the Fordow facility was “of particular concern because of the covert way in which it was developed and how deep underground it is.”
A leading Democratic critic of the Iran talks, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), reacted strongly to the AP report Thursday, saying that if it was true, “we are not inching closer to Iran’s negotiating position, but leaping toward it with both feet.”
“We have pivoted away from demanding the closure of Fordow when the negotiations began, to considering its conversion into a research facility, to now allowing hundreds of centrifuges to spin at this underground bunker site where centrifuges could be quickly repurposed for illicit nuclear enrichment purposes,” he said in a statement.
“An undue amount of trust and faith is being placed in a negotiating partner that has spent decades deceiving the international community; denying the International Atomic Energy Agency access to its facilities; refusing to answer questions about its nuclear-related military activities; and all the while, actively destabilizing the region from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen,” Menendez said.
“A good deal must meet our primary negotiating objective – curtailing Iran’s current and future ability to achieve nuclear weapons capability. If the best deal Iran will give us does not achieve this goal, it is not a good deal for the United States or its partners. A good deal won’t leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state.”
‘A line in the sand’
When news of the secretly built facility near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, was first made public in the fall of 2009, the U.S., Britain and France presented detailed evidence to the IAEA in Vienna, and the following day the three countries’ leaders made a joint announcement on the sidelines of a G20 conference in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Iran’s decision to build yet another nuclear facility without notifying the IAEA represents a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime,” Obama declared.
“This site deepens a growing concern that Iran is refusing to live up to those international responsibilities, including specifically revealing all nuclear-related activities,” he said.
“Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear power that meets the energy needs of its people. But the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.”
Then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described the Iranian nuclear program as “the most urgent proliferation challenge that the world faces today.”
“The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve,” he added.
“Confronted by the serial deception of many years, the international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke declined Thursday to comment on the AP report’s claims regarding Fordow.
“I think there probably will be a lot of reports over the next week that claim to address any – some specifics about what’s going on in the negotiating room,” he said. “We’ve been clear all along that we’re not going to negotiate in public and we’re also not going to comment on specific reports about specific details that purportedly are coming up in the talks.”
“Our bottom lines remain the same,” Rathke said. “That we want to come to a framework that cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, and that’s what we’re working towards.”