Opposition group says Tehran is developing a weapon that could hit Western Europe and is trying to equip them with illicit warheads.
By John Daniszewski, Times Staff Writer
LONDON - An Iranian opposition group asserted Thursday that the Islamic Republic was developing a new series of missiles with the capability to strike Western Europe, and seeking ways to arm them with chemical or nuclear warheads.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, or NCRI, held a news conference at the Parliament building in London to outline what it said were advanced weapons delivery systems being secretly manufactured by Tehran.
The group has been labeled by the State Department as a front for the Mujahedin Khalq, an armed opposition force, and the two appear on U.S. and European Union lists of terrorist organizations because of violent activities against the Iranian government, a charge the NCRI denies.
Although the group did not give a precise source or documentation for its accusations, organizers pointed out that it first revealed to the world the secret Iranian nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak in August 2002.
A former senior CIA official has told The Times that U.S. authorities closely follow the NCRI's claims, despite its terrorist designation and mixed record for accuracy.
"They obviously got sources within their home country," the ex-official said.
The group's charges followed a statement made last month by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said that Washington had unconfirmed intelligence that Iran might be trying to adapt missiles to carry nuclear warheads.
"The Iranian regime's efforts to obtain long-range missiles and weapons are two wings of a single strategy," the group's spokesman, Ali Safavi, said at the news conference. "Militarily speaking, by obtaining them [missiles"> they are trying to put many regions of the world most of Europe, I must say within their range."
He charged that the religious leadership in Iran was "bent on acquiring long- and medium-range missiles that will carry nuclear and chemical warheads" in order to "prolong their increasingly fragile regime."
He said the state-run Iranian Aerospace Industries Organization had a top-secret Ghadr missile system in development at the Hemmat Missile Industries complex in northeast Tehran. The missile's range is intended to be about 1,550 to 1,875 miles and it will be more maneuverable and quicker to deploy without detection than the Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missile systems Iran has already developed, Safavi said.
The Iranian government has denied repeatedly that it is developing such missiles. It also has insisted that its nuclear program is for civilian, not military, purposes.
A resolution adopted this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency's governing board sealed a mid-November deal brokered by Britain, France and Germany for Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment-related activities and thus avoid referral to the U.N. Security Council, where it could face sanctions. The U.S. has remained skeptical of Iran's pledge.
Safavi said that his group had a vast network inside Iran and that the missile report, which named divisions and individuals involved in the alleged development, was based on "highly placed people within Iran's leadership as well as its various programs." He did not present any documentary evidence.
"When you look at the quantity of information we have provided for the last few years, many would agree it has been the most accurate and reliable on Iran's nuclear and missile program," Safavi said.
"Western intelligence agencies have been, by and large, left in the dark with regard to these weapons programs."
The Paris-based NCRI is closely linked to the Mujahedin Khalq, which has claimed responsibility for bombings and armed attacks inside Iran against the theocratic regime. Until the defeat of Saddam Hussein, the guerrilla force had been encouraged by Iraq.
Because previous revelations made by the group about Iran's secret uranium-enrichment activities turned out to be true, the Bush administration did not dismiss Thursday's allegations. One official, who declined to be identified, noted that the National Council of Resistance of Iran had no U.S. backing.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the administration's ultimate goal "is that Iran end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and it's important that they cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency."
McClellan said any questions about weapons sites should be fully investigated by inspectors.
"The IAEA has asked to be able to go in and inspect those sites," McClellan added. "And I think the international community is sending a clear and unified message to Iran that they need to cooperate fully with inspectors, with the IAEA, when it comes to their nuclear weapons programs."