By Michael Adler
VIENNA - Iran is to establish a secret nuclear engineering faculty within a year to provide engineers for what the United States claims is a covert project to develop atomic weapons, a Western intelligence source told AFP.
"This is a very significant step towards training an Iranian nuclear cadre," the source, who asked not to be named, said in a recent interview.
The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported in London Sunday that Iran has approved a secret nuclear research center to train scientists in atomic technology.
Iranian officials, questioned by AFP recently, have so far declined to comment on this matter.
"The declared purpose for establishing the faculty is to create a source of skilled and professional manpower to promote Iran's military nuclear project, whose activity is increasing," the source told AFP.
"By setting up this installation, the Iranians are trying to make sure they have trained people whom the West doesn't even know about," the source said.
The allegation comes despite growing pressure on Iran from the United States and the European Union to guarantee that it will not use its atomic energy programme to acquire nuclear weapons.
Washington claims Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons but says its nuclear programme is a peaceful project to generate electricity for civilian use.
"The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) has received approval from the regime for the ministry of education to establish a secret faculty of applied nuclear engineering and materials engineering," the source said.
"The faculty will concentrate only on nuclear topics and will build and train a new generation of engineers, who will be able to immediately work on highly secret projects as soon as they complete their studies."
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said earlier this month that the IAEA has not found weapons work in Iran after two years of investigations but that "the jury is still out" on whether the Islamic Republic's nuclear intentions are peaceful.
The IAEA has discovered that Iran hid sensitive atomic activities for almost two decades until the agency investigation began.
AFP's source said Iran would seek to protect the faculty from IAEA scrutiny.
"Since it is new the faculty will be compartmentalised and undeclared. It will not be under IAEA inspection," the source said.
"In practice the faculty is to be set up within a year. It will operate as a branch of one of the leading universities in Iran in nuclear science and its activity will be mainly classified."
At present most Iranian students are required to travel abroad for advanced studies in nuclear technology, where they can be monitored by Western intelligence agencies, the sources said.
"Anyone abroad, someone is writing his name down, that this is an Iranian nuclear scientist," the source said.
The source said Iran does not have enough nuclear engineers for a programme which is seeking to mine uranium, convert it into a gas that can be processed and finally make enriched uranium.
Enriched uranium can be fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but also in highly refined form the explosive core of atom bombs.
The source said "universities in Iran, including the classified military universities" focus "mainly on theoretical nuclear education and only touch on the applied aspect of nuclear science."
The secret faculty would "operate as a branch of one of the leading universities in Iran" such as Sharif University of Technology or the University of Tehran, the source said.
"It will be situated on the site of the AEOI in Tehran since its activity will be mainly classified," the source said.