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Iran has underground uranium enrichment facility, exile asserts

WASHINGTON—Iran has built a secret underground facility inside a tightly guarded military complex to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, an Iranian exile charged on Thursday.

The allegation, which couldn't immediately be confirmed, was leveled by Alireza Jafarzadeh, an exile whose previous claims helped reveal that Iran had been conducting clandestine nuclear activities for some 20 years.

Iran doesn't have diplomatic relations with the United States, and the Iranian mission to the United Nations didn't immediately return two telephone calls seeking a response to Jafarzadeh's latest allegation. Iran has repeatedly said its nuclear program is for electricity production and denied Bush administration allegations that it's secretly developing nuclear weapons.

A U.S. official, who insisted on anonymity because the matter involved intelligence methods, said the claim could not be substantiated "at this point."

U.S. intelligence officials, who were burned by bogus intelligence provided by Iraqi exiles trying to oust Saddam Hussein, have been more skeptical about information provided by Jafarzadeh and other Iranian exiles. Some of what they've provided, especially about Iran's nuclear programs, has proved valuable, but other allegations remain unconfirmed or have proved false, said one official, who also requested anonymity because intelligence sources and methods are classified.

Jafarzadeh, who now runs a Washington-based consulting business, was the U.S. spokesman for the National Coalition of Resistance of Iran until 2003, when it was placed on the State Department's list of international terrorist organizations.

The NCRI's military wing, the Mujahedeen Khalq, was based in Iraq, armed by Saddam, and allegedly uses assassinations and other violence against Iran's Islamic rulers.

Jafarzadeh said in a telephone interview that the secret underground uranium enrichment facility is located in Plan One, a southern sector of the massive Parchin military complex, 20 miles southeast of Tehran, which produces chemicals.

"The information I have indicates that ... Iran has built an underground tunnel-like facility in the large military complex at Parchin," he said. "The construction was very recently completed. They have already installed equipment and machines related to laser enrichment."

Laser enrichment is one of several methods for separating Uranium 235, used for nuclear weapons, from Uranium 238.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna, Austria-based U.N. nuclear watchdog group investigating Iran's nuclear program, declined to comment on Jafarzadeh's latest charge.

But Corey Hilderstein of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington policy institute that tracks nuclear proliferation, said that commercial satellite photos shot last August showed tunneling activity at Parchin.

She said the purpose of the excavation wasn't apparent, and she couldn't say if it was in the same location that Jafarzadeh claimed is the site of the alleged secret underground facility.

"What it says to us is that the IAEA must go back to Parchin," she said.

Iran allowed IAEA inspectors into part of the massive Parchin site earlier this year. But it's declined the agency's request to allow inspectors into other portions of the complex.

If Jafarzadeh's latest assertion is verified, Iran could be accused of breaking an agreement to suspend uranium enrichment activities while it negotiates with the European Union to resolve suspicions that it has a nuclear weapons program.

Such a finding could prompt the Bush administration to reverse a recent decision to support the negotiations and resume its demand to send the matter to the United Nations Security Council for economic sanctions on the Islamic republic.

Iran told the IAEA in 2003 that it had ended an experimental laser enrichment program, but admitted that for years it secretly had been pursuing enrichment using high-speed centrifuges.

Centrifuges can produce low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear power plants or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

In 2002, Jafarzadeh disclosed the existence of a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy water production facility in Arak that the IAEA subsequently verified were parts of a secret nuclear program. He said he learned about the alleged enrichment facility from "sources with access to information from inside the Iranian regime."

As a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international accord designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, Iran may pursue peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The NPT requires signatories to disclose their nuclear activities to the IAEA, but Iran didn't.

Jafarzadeh's latest claim came a day after negotiators for Britain, France and Germany, or the EU Three, and Iran agreed in Paris to continue negotiations to resolve the dispute over the purpose of the Iranian nuclear program.

Fears that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons grew with revelations beginning in 2003 that it had illegally acquired nuclear technology and know-how from a smuggling network run by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The negotiations remain deadlocked over a demand by the EU Three and the United States that Iran terminate permanently all uranium enrichment efforts.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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