Says facility used laser technology; cites new project
By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON - A member of an exiled Iranian opposition group said yesterday that Iran's government has just completed a secret underground facility to enrich uranium using laser technology, and began a second, secret construction project at the same site earlier this month.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, who has reported accurately in the past about covert Iranian nuclear activities, said the underground nuclear facility at the Parchin military complex, about 20 miles southeast of Tehran, was built recently under the supervision of the chief engineer of Iran's aerospace agency, whom he identified by the family name Yadegary. Jafarzadeh also identified the scientist in charge of the laser project as Mohamad Amin Bassam, a physicist who studied laser enrichment at Imam Hussein University in Tehran.
Jafarzadeh is former spokesman of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a group the State Department designated as a terrorist organization in 2003. He released to the Globe what he said were new details, a day after disseminating information to reporters about the alleged underground laser facility.
If the allegations are true, the new construction represents a violation of the freeze on all nuclear activity that Iran agreed to as a part of ongoing negotiations with Britain, France, and Germany, which are offering economic incentives to Iran to permanently dismantle all nuclear enrichment programs.
''These claims would destroy the negotiations," said David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, and a former weapons inspector for the United Nations. But Albright said the Iranian exiles with whom Jafarzadeh is affiliated have been ''wrong more often than they have been right" in recent months as they release information that Albright said seemed to be designed to undermine the nuclear talks.
''They obviously have some good information," Albright said. ''But we're skeptical. They basically have a political agenda that puts them in very sharp opposition to the [European Union"> negotiations." Iran insists that its enrichment activities are for peaceful research purposes only, legal under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But Iran has steadfastly refused to permanently halt enrichment, as US and European officials have requested.
Iran hid its laser enrichment program until the International Atomic Energy Agency uncovered it in 2003 at Lashkar Ab'ad and Karaj, sites Iranian exiles had identified as suspect.
Iran told the IAEA that it had not disclosed the laser program earlier out of fear that the United States would try to prevent what it called peaceful research. Laser enrichment is a more difficult way to obtain fuel for a nuclear weapon than centrifuges, a path Iran has also pursued.
Iran told the IAEA that it conducted laser enrichment experiments between October 2002 and January 2003, and then dismantled the equipment in May 2003, according to an IAEA report.
In January, the IAEA conducted a limited inspection of Parchin, which mainly produces chemical weapons and missiles. But since that time, Iran has refused to allow the IAEA back in.
Jafarzadeh, who now runs Strategic Policy Consulting Inc., a think tank based in Washington, said he received more information about the secret projects at Parchin late yesterday afternoon, including information that trucks began removing a large amount of earth March 7 near a part of the complex known as Plan 7. He did not disclose the source of the information. He said excavation, which could be the construction of another underground facility, has been done using a small number of trucks to avoid attracting the attention of satellite monitors.
Albright said his organization released photos in September of new construction at Parchin that could be a tunnel, but said it was impossible to determine whether the images were related to the alleged laser facility.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a diplomat from a country involved in the talks with France, Britain, and Germany, known as the EU-3, said it is unclear how the allegations would affect the talks, but added, ''The best thing for the Iranians to do if the claims are untrue is to let the inspectors go and check."
In a separate development, the Associated Press reported yesterday that Iran is covertly building a stockpile of thousands of high-tech small arms and other military equipment -- from armor-piercing sniper rifles to night-vision goggles -- through legal weapons deals and a UN antidrug program. The AP report, citing an internal UN document, arms dealers, and Western diplomats, said Tehran also is seeking approval for a UN-funded satellite network.
Iran says it needs the satellite network and high-tech small arms bought on the European arms market to fight drug smugglers pouring in from Afghanistan, the AP reported.