By Jennifer Joan Lee
PARIS - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday the United States has seen signs that Iran is developing technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
He spoke just hours after an Iranian opposition group charged that Tehran has a secret, military-run uranium-enrichment plant and has bought the blueprints for a nuclear bomb.
Mr. Powell made his remarks while traveling with reporters to an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Chile.
"I have seen some information that would suggest they have been actively working on delivery systems. ... You don't have a weapon until you can put it in something that can deliver a weapon," he said, according to Reuters news agency.
"I'm talking about what one does with a warhead," Mr. Powell said. "We are talking about information that says they not only have [the"> missiles, but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together."
Hours earlier, officials of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said at twin press conferences in Paris and in Vienna, Austria, that Tehran had bought plans for a nuclear weapon, as well as weapons-grade uranium from the black-market network that sold similar designs to Libya.
The NCRI is on the State Department's terrorist list, along with its affiliate, the Mujahideen Khalq, or People's Mujahideen.
The senior spokesman for the NCRI which first exposed Iran's nuclear program two years ago said in Vienna that the diagram was provided by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani head of the nuclear network linked to clandestine operations around the world.
Farid Soleimani said the material was handed to the Iranians between 1994 and 1996. Libya bought Chinese-language warhead-design documents through Mr. Khan's network before it publicly renounced its covert nuclear-weapons program last year.
U.S. officials have estimated that Iran is three to five years from developing a nuclear weapon, but some independent experts have said it could obtain one sooner.
Joseph Cirincione, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Non-Proliferation Project, told Reuters that it takes considerable expertise to shrink a nuclear bomb to fit on a missile with a 1-ton payload and to make it sturdy enough to survive rocket launch and re-entry.
It was not clear whether diagrams provided by the A.Q. Khan network would meet those requirements, but Pakistan, a declared nuclear power, is believed to have mounted warheads on missiles.
A U.S. official familiar with intelligence on the Pakistani network questioned some of the claims yesterday by the Iranian opposition group, but did not elaborate.
A Vienna-based diplomat familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency said such suspicions "have been around for almost a year, and they don't help us get closer to the truth."
Mr. Powell told reporters that he could not corroborate the Iranian opposition group's claims.
But NCRI spokesman Mohammad Mohaddessin said in Paris that Iran's Ministry of Defense had moved equipment used to enrich uranium as well as develop biological and chemical weapons to a new 60-acre site in the Lavizan district of Tehran.
Now known as "the Modern Defensive Readiness and Technology Center," the former military battalion site was to be used for nuclear research separate from the country's civilian nuclear-energy program.
"I don't know if the plant is in operation yet, but our sources say they know that centrifuges have been installed and that nuclear research is being undertaken there," Mr. Mohadessin said.
He went on to describe the building and gave out the names, addresses and phone numbers of four nuclear scientists working in Iran's Ministry of Defense.
NCRI's claims, if true, point to serious weaknesses in the latest deal between Iran and Europe, whereby Tehran pledged it would suspend its uranium-enrichment activities as the group thrashes out the details of a longer-term nonproliferation pact.
"The larger point that this speaks to is, despite the agreement Iran has reached with Europe, are they going to continue to develop things secretly? This group is arguing yes," said Valerie Lincy, of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
"That is going to be the big hole in any agreement," she said in Washington. "It is very hard to detect low-level nuclear research and development and bench-scale type experiments."
It is unlikely that the United States will publicly pursue the NCRI's information because of the terrorist designation of the organization and its affiliate.
The State Department said yesterday it had "no comment" on the opposition group's claims, although a number of its revelations have proved accurate in the past.