Exile group contends better missile with longer range in works
By Bryan Bender
WASHINGTON - Iran is developing more advanced ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons to targets as far as Berlin and is also shielding from international inspectors two military complexes believed to be part of its clandestine atomic bomb program, American intelligence officials, international diplomats, and an Iranian opposition group claimed yesterday.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran -- an exile group that previously uncovered illicit Iranian weapons activities -- and US intelligence reports allege that Iran is developing an improved missile with a range of more than 1,500 miles, hundreds of miles further than the missiles now in its inventory.
Furthermore, the exile group also said Iran is outfitting shorter-range missiles with the ability to carry a heavier payload than conventional explosives, further suggesting that despite its claims to the contrary Iran's civilian nuclear programs are designed for military use.
Meanwhile, UN diplomats said yesterday the Iranian government has refused to allow inspectors to visit two military sites that US and foreign intelligence suggests are being used to develop nuclear weapons.
The allegations cast new doubt on Iran's recent pledges to halt its nuclear activities and fueled new concerns that the Islamic Republic is merely playing for time to build nuclear weapons and the missiles that can carry them throughout the Middle East and beyond.
''One would think that if they really wanted to demonstrate to the world that they were not developing nuclear weapons, they would have absolutely no problem at all in allowing inspections of any facility, anywhere, on any suspicion, on any grounds, because they would have nothing to hide," Richard Boucher, a spokesman for the State Department, said yesterday.
Iran has long denied it is developing nuclear weapons and maintains its missile work -- which is internationally allowed -- is for purely commercial purposes, to launch satellites into orbit. Iran's representative to the United Nations, Morteza Ramandi, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday. The charges regarding the missiles and the two military complexes were both reported first yesterday by The New York Times.
The country's Intelligence Ministry announced in Tehran yesterday it had arrested a spy who was setting up a fake nuclear company to damage the country's international standing, according to state-run news. It blamed the United States.
The information about new missile efforts identified the project as the Ghadr, or ''powerful," which the exile group said is based on purely Iranian technology and not on designs previously provided to Iran by Russia, China, and North Korea.
The missile and a more advanced version called the Ghadr 110 is designed to be more maneuverable than the current Shahab-3 missile, which can travel up to 840 miles, and the Shahab-4 that was test-fired in August and has a range of 1,245 miles. The Ghadr is also intended to be launched on 30 minutes notice rather than several hours, the group said.
The design work is being done at the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Complex north of Tehran, targeted for US sanctions in 2000 and 2003 for selling missile technology, the organization added.
US intelligence officials, while corroborating some of the exiles' claims, attempted to downplay their report, saying US intelligence has long known that Iran is trying to extend the distance, accuracy, and payload capacity of its missiles.
''They want to be able to hit areas they believe to be their adversaries," said a Pentagon official with access to the latest intelligence reports on Iran's weapons activities. ''Their goal is to do that."
Asked to comment on the group's assertions, missile specialist John Pike of Global Security.org in Alexandria, Va., said, ''We were able to independently corroborate information concerning that facility," citing US government sources and publicly available images and documents.
The CIA has expressed its own suspicions.
''Ballistic missile-related cooperation from entities in the former Soviet Union, North Korea, and China over the years has helped Iran move toward its goal of becoming self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles," it said in a Nov. 23 report to Congress. ''Iran's ballistic missile inventory is among the largest in the Middle East. Iran is also pursuing longer-range ballistic missiles."
Unlike in the nuclear area, Iran is not bound by any international obligations to refrain from building long-range missiles. Still, the Iranian government has maintained that its missile work -- like its uranium enrichment programs -- is for purely civilian purposes, and it is seeking the ability to launch satellites.
But the exile group's report lists numerous military organizations and specific commanders as overseeing the missile work.
''It shows heavy involvement of the military," said Andrew Koch, Washington bureau chief of Jane's Defence Weekly. ''The Iranian argument is that it is civilian. If that is true, why is this all being done at military facilities?"
A spokesman for the exile group in Paris, which uncovered two hidden nuclear facilities in 2002 that have since been corroborated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday that the new information came directly from people working in the program and from inside the Iranian regime.
''We have a network inside Iran and it came from human intelligence," Shahin Gobadi said in a telephone interview. The group's military arm, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, has been labeled a terrorist group by the State Department.
The group said its sources in Iran also said that Iran has successfully developed a more advanced short-range missile, called the Zelzal-2, with a range of 150 miles. Their report quotes from a document described as a confidential Iranian Air Force report sent to the Revolutionary Guard Corps headquarters: ''Zelzal-2 missile has been produced for deploying in other countries and in Iraq in particular."
The resistance organization also reported that the Iranians have increased from three to five the number of their missile brigades, citing in particular the Imam Missile Site in Khorramabad as the premier launch facility. It said the heavily defended facility shot down an Iranian airliner with 120 passengers that went astray two years ago, an incident that had been reported at the time as a crash.
Further fueling suspicions about Iran's nuclear intentions, the IAEA yesterday said that Tehran has not allowed inspectors to visit two additional military sites suspected of being involved with nuclear-related activities. Tehran has not responded to a request to inspect a facility at Lavizan-Shian after handing over a partial inventory of its activities in October.