By Con Coughlin
The Iranian government has given approval for the establishment of a secret nuclear research centre to train its scientists in all aspects of atomic technology, The Telegraph can reveal.
Recent reports received by Western intelligence show that Teheran has recently approved the establishment of a faculty of applied nuclear engineering that will be attached to the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI).
The faculty will provide post-graduate courses for Iranian scientists in nuclear engineering and the production of nuclear materials.
Intelligence officials believe that the creation of the facility is yet further evidence that Iran is involved in a clandestine programme to build nuclear weapons.
The Iranian government has recently come under intense diplomatic pressure from Europe and the United States to provide a full account of its nuclear programme.
While the Iranians claim that their nuclear activities are entirely peaceful, nuclear experts working for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations-sponsored nuclear watchdog, have found incontrovertible proof that Iran has been involved in the production of weapons-grade uranium.
The establishment of Iran's first post-graduate nuclear research faculty is seen as evidence that the Iranians are pressing ahead with their secret programme to become self-sufficient in the production of nuclear weapons.
"If the Iranians were really serious about only developing nuclear technology for peaceful means, there would be no need for a facility like this," said a senior Western security official. "It suggests that they do not want to share their nuclear expertise with the outside world."
The disclosure that Iran is setting up the nuclear research facility follows last week's revelation that Ukraine exported 12 cruise missiles to Teheran in 2001. The X-55 cruise missiles are designed to carry nuclear warheads and have a range of 1,800 miles, enabling Iran to attack Israel and Nato targets in southern Europe.
Israeli officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the threat posed by Iran's attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal, and have threatened to carry out pre-emptive bombing raids against Iranian nuclear establishments if they believe that Iran is close to acquiring a nuclear capability.
All students participating in the new Iranian nuclear research courses will first be required to undergo a thorough security vetting process conducted by security officials from Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who will have overall control of the facility.
The main purpose of the complex, which will operate as a branch of Teheran University, is to make Iran's nuclear industry completely self-sufficient.
At present most Iranian students are required to travel abroad for advanced studies in nuclear technology, where they are kept under strict supervision. By making the new facility part of Teheran University, Iranian officials hope that it will not be liable to inspection by IAEA officials.
The Iranians want to build up teams of home-grown nuclear scientists who will be able to work on a variety of highly secret nuclear projects the moment that they have completed their studies. All the courses at the faculty, which will be supervised by nuclear experts from the AEOI, will be classified.
Questions have been raised about the need for Iran to develop nuclear fuel when it has one of the world's largest oil reserves.