Nuke expert: Obama's two-week inspection deadline gives Iran time to hide the evidence

This would be the same deadline that the State Department hinted yesterday that it’s prepared to back down from if ElBaradei asks them to.

Allowing access within two weeks of the announcement would in effect give Tehran almost a month after its Sept. 21 acknowledgment of the plant’s existence to obscure evidence, they said.

David Albright, a former international weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said it would probably take Iran some time to conceal activities. But, “if you have a month, you have the time,” he said.

A European official who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue said the six world powers “did well” to win Iran’s agreement to permit access. But the official acknowledged that swifter access would have been better…

But Albright said faster is better. “It’s not good that the inspection has taken so long,” he said.

“There is no reason it could not have happened yesterday,” he said. “It should have.”

He’s assuming Iran will have a month because he’s using Sept. 21, the date they finally told the IAEA that the Qom facility exists, as his starting point. But in fact, assuming they intend to let inspectors into the plant — which is still uncertain, believe it or not — they probably started moving equipment out of there before then. Remember, the strong suspicion among diplomats is that Iran only disclosed the Qom site because they were tipped off that the west knew about it and was about to reveal it; the “voluntary” disclosure was Tehran’s way of making it look as though they were being good, honest international citizens. In all likelihood there was some (short) interim period between the time they learned that the west was onto them and their decision to disclose on Sept. 21, and that interim could have been used to hide evidence. That was the risk the west ran by sitting on their intelligence about the building, which leaves The One now forced to issue tough-sounding deadlines that really don’t mean much since (a) the smoking gun is probably already gone and (b) a truly tough deadline, demanding inspections immediately in order to seize whatever smoking gun might still be there, would provoke an international crisis if Iran said no, and the west simply isn’t prepared to deal with that. In fact, read this dishy Telegraph piece about the argument between Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy about when to spill the beans on Qom. The Europeans wanted it done in dramatic fashion at the Security Council meeting that Obama chaired, but The One didn’t want his special moment on disarmament interrupted so they waited until the next morning to do it at a presser. And really, why not? It’s already too late. What’s another day?

So where are we at now? Same place we’ve always been: Wondering if Iran’s simply jerking us around to buy time.

For the administration, though, the problem is that no one is certain that the Iranian government will actually do what Western officials say that it has now agreed to do. In fact, on Friday, less than 24 hours after the talks in Geneva broke up, Iranian officials did not sound as if they thought they had promised anything.

“No, no!” Mehdi Saffare, Iran’s ambassador to Britain and a member of the Iranian delegation to the negotiations, said, according to the Associated Press. He said that the idea of sending Iran’s enriched uranium out of the county had “not been discussed yet.”

This is not the first time that Western officials have left discussions with their Iranian counterparts thinking they had a deal, only to see it melt away. In 2007, European diplomats said they thought they had wrung a concession from Iran on the same issue, enriching uranium outside the country for use in Iranian reactors, only to have Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reject the idea as an infringement of Iran’s sovereignty.

“That’s the big ‘if,’ isn’t it?” a senior Obama administration official said. “Will they do it? No one wants to do a premature victory lap.”

By all means, let’s hold off on that, um, “victory lap” for the time being. Your must-read of the day is this Jackson Diehl commentary on what will be, in short order, the new international reality on Iran: Trying to “contain” an Islamic fundamentalist regime that has nuclear weapons. We all know the talks are going to go nowhere, so much so that Congress is already working on authorizing sanctions so that Obama can put them into practice at a moment’s notice. Which is to say, we’re really just buying time too at this point. The reckoning will come next year.