Washington, Dec. 13 (Reuters): The US believes Iran’s nuclear weapons programme has taken a disquieting move forward with the building of two large nuclear facilities, US officials said yesterday.
The disclosure raises a new challenge for President George W. Bush as he tries to head off North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme as well as what Washington believes is an effort to build a nuclear weapon in Iraq.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a nuclear facility near the Iranian town of Natanz, and one near the town of Arak, were seen in commercial satellite photographs taken in September.
The facilities are of a type that suggest Iran could be using them to build a nuclear weapon, the officials said.
Iran today dismissed US accusations that two nuclear plants it is building could be used to make secret nuclear weapons.
“We don’t have any hidden atomic activities. All our nuclear activities are for non-military fields,” Iranian government spokesman Abdollah Ramazanzadeh told reporters on the sidelines of a political conference.
Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been talking with Iran since August about the facilities and had been invited by Tehran to inspect them. “This is not a surprise to us,” IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei said. “Whether the programme is for peaceful purposes or not, this is obviously for us to verify... Iran affirmed that all their activities are for a peaceful purpose,” he said in Vienna.
“The question here is whether the Iranians have already placed nuclear materials in the facilities,” a UN official said. “If they are planning to put nuclear materials in, the IAEA expects Iran to now open talks to arrange for the materials to be placed under IAEA safeguards.”
The US government considers Iran the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Iran, Iraq and North Korea make up what Bush has called an “axis of evil” bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism.
Tehran has been developing a medium-range ballistic missile that experts say would be capable of hitting Israel.
The US has also been at odds with Russia over its assistance to Iran in building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr on the Gulf coast.
David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said his organisation was publishing its findings on the Iranian sites because it wanted the IAEA to inspect them.
“It appears that Iran is resisting having these sites visited, even though it says: ‘Come visit’. That’s in fact why we released this information. We felt that there should some spotlight on this problem,” he said.
Iran insists its nuclear programme is devoted to generating electricity for peaceful purposes, but US officials argue there can be no reason for a country with Iran’s oil resources to want nuclear reactors.
ISIS reported in a briefing paper on its website (www.isis-online.org/) that the complex near Arak appeared to include a plant to produce heavy water, a nuclear product that can be used either in civilian reactors or in the fuel cycle for making weapons.
“There is concern that this effort to obtain a complete fuel cycle is aimed at developing the capability to make separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the two main nuclear explosive materials,” it said.
The US and Iran have been enemies since student militants seized the US embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami accused the US in October of fomenting the “worst kind of violence” on the pretext of fighting terrorism. He said goodwill gestures by Iran had not received an adequate response from Washington and called for a “change in vision” by US politicians.
Bush has called for a change away from the Muslim clerics who run Iran. In July, he expressed solidarity with Iranian students who protested against the Islamic Republic.