By Louis Charbonneau
PARIS - An Iranian exile accused Tehran on Thursday of secretly purifying uranium for use in nuclear weapons at a recently-constructed underground facility at a military complex called Parchin. "Iran has completed an underground tunnel-like facility in Parchin, which is now engaged in laser enrichment," said Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who has reported accurately in the past about hidden atomic facilities in Iran.
"This underground site is camouflaged and built in an area of Parchin that deals with the chemical industry," he told Reuters by telephone from Washington, citing "well-placed sources inside the Iranian regime".
Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment, and Tehran has repeatedly denied carrying out any nuclear work at Parchin.
Jafarzadeh said the enrichment work was linked to "Iran's secret nuclear weapons programme".
Enrichment is a process of purifying uranium for use as fuel for power plants or weapons. Iran says it no longer does any work with laser enrichment, a high-tech but inefficient method of purifying uranium.
Iran has said a tunnel complex under a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan had been built to store equipment for protection in case of U.S. or Israeli attack.
As the former spokesman for the Iranian exile group, the National Coalition of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Jafarzadeh revealed in August 2002 information about two hidden sites in Iran -- an underground uranium enrichment at Natanz and a heavy-water production plant at Arak.
Iran later declared both sites to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The IAEA declined to comment on Jafarzadeh's accusation, though spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said the agency "follows up every credible lead".
Iran has been reluctant to allow inspectors from the IAEA into Parchin, which lies some 30 km (19 miles) southeast of Tehran. Earlier this year Iran permitted limited inspections at the site but refused to allow them to return when the agency requested a follow-up inspection.
Iran is under no legal obligation to permit inspections at sites like Parchin, which are not officially or demonstrably linked to Tehran's nuclear programme.
Washington, which accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons under cover of an atomic energy programme, believes Tehran has been conducting tests and experiments related to nuclear bombmaking at Parchin.
Jafarzadeh said the underground enrichment site was in a section of Parchin known as "Plan 1".
Iran denies wanting weapons and insists its nuclear ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electricity. The IAEA has found no compelling evidence that Iran has a weapons programme, but agency inspectors say they are not convinced Iran has declared all of its nuclear facilities.
Jafarzadeh made his latest allegation one day after Iran agreed to continue talks with France, Britain and Germany, who are trying to persuade Tehran to abandon its enrichment programme in exchange for economic and political incentives.
But he denied the timing was anything other than a coincidence. "This information just came in. I received it yesterday. It is very fresh, not something that came in weeks ago," he said.
Iran refuses to consider terminating its enrichment programme, but decided not to withdraw from the talks and continues to suspend its uranium enrichment programme as a confidence building measure.
The United States, which lists the NCRI as a terrorist organisation, has shut down the NCRI's Washington offices. Jafarzadeh now runs a think-thank there called Strategic Policy Consulting, Inc.