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Iran: U.S. Daily Says Tehran In 'Late Stages' Of Building Nuclear Bomb

A major U.S. daily, the "Los Angeles Times," reported this week that Iran appears to be in the late stages of building a nuclear bomb and has sought technical help from Pakistan, Russia, and other countries. The story, which has already been widely picked up by other media, has already sparked an angry denial from Pakistan.

Prague, 6 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A three-month investigation of Iran's nuclear program by the "Los Angeles Times" newspaper concludes that Tehran "appears to be in the late stages of developing the capacity to build a nuclear bomb."

The U.S. daily reported on 4 August that "no one is certain when Iran might produce its first atomic weapon" but that expert estimates range from two to three years.

The paper -- which said its investigation drew on "previously secret reports, international officials, independent experts, Iranian exiles, and intelligence sources in Europe and the Middle East" -- also said Iran is getting help from scientists in Pakistan, Russia, China, and North Korea. It said the help includes visits to Iran by nuclear weapons experts.

The paper's report sparked an angry response from Islamabad today, which said the allegations of Pakistani involvement were fabricated. A statement by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry called such charges "false, irresponsible, and obviously motivated."

The government statement also said that "Pakistan's commitments, affirmed at the highest level, that it would not export any sensitive technologies to third countries remain unquestionable."

The newspaper had specifically quoted an unidentified Middle Eastern intelligence official as saying Pakistan's role in helping Iran develop a nuclear program was "bigger from the beginning then we thought." The paper also said that eminent Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan -- often considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb -- has traveled "frequently" to Iran.

The "Los Angeles Times" also charged that Russian scientists sometimes travel to Iran under false identities and work there without Moscow's approval. The paper said they are helping complete a special reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Moscow, which is assisting Iran in building a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor in the western port of Bushehr under an $800 million contract, has not responded to the newspaper article. But Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev has repeatedly said in the past that Moscow is only cooperating with Iran "on the peaceful utilization of nuclear technology."

The report quoted foreign intelligence officials as saying North Korean military scientists have recently been monitored visiting Iranian nuclear facilities and were assisting in the design of a nuclear warhead. There has been no comment from Pyongyang, which late last year evicted UN nuclear inspectors from North Korea, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and restarted a reactor suspected of being used for weapons development.

There has also been no comment from China, from which the newspaper said Tehran imported 1.8 tons of nuclear material in 1991.

The "Los Angeles Times" report comes at a time of heightened international concern over Iran's nuclear program, which Iran says is to develop alternative energy sources. Washington contends the program has military purposes.

U.S. President George W. Bush last week called for a concentrated international effort to convince Iran to abandon any attempts to develop nuclear weapons.

"I believe that the best way to deal with the Iranians at this point in time is [to] convince others to join us in a clear declaration that the development of a nuclear weapon is not in their interests," Bush said.

He continued, "I really believe that we can solve this issue peacefully, but this is an issue that's going to require a concerted effort by nations around the world to work with the United States, particularly in Europe, to speak clearly to the Iranian administration."

The U.S. administration has said it will not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons. It has gained increasing international support for pressing Tehran to make its nuclear program more transparent since the UN nuclear agency reprimanded Iran in June for repeated failures to report on its nuclear material facilities and activities.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is now asking Tehran to sign an additional protocol which would allow spot inspections of facilities and increased environmental sampling to better monitor its nuclear program.

A team of three legal experts from the IAEA is wrapping up two days of talks in Tehran today with top Iranian nuclear officials over exactly what the spot inspections would entail. Iran has not confirmed whether it will sign an additional protocol with the IAEA. But this week it said any decision would have to be made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in accordance with Iran's national interests.

The "Los Angles Times" says that among other evidence Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program is a confidential French government report in May that concluded Iran is "surprisingly close to having enriched uranium or plutonium for a bomb." The paper said the French report warned other governments to exercise "the most serious vigilance in their exports to Iran and Iranian front companies."

The newspaper also said that Iran has concealed several weapons research laboratories and evidence of their past activities from UN inspectors. It noted that in June, UN inspectors were not permitted to enter or take test samples at one facility in a Tehran suburb disguised as a watch-making factory.

At the same time, the paper quotes a foreign intelligence official and an American diplomat as saying privately that UN inspectors doing environmental sampling in Iran in June found traces of enriched uranium high enough to be consistent with attempts to build a nuclear weapon.

UN inspectors have not commented on the "Los Angeles Times" article. A spokesman for the Vienna-based IAEA, Lothar Wedekind, told Reuters yesterday that "we do not comment on media reports."

The newspaper's findings -- mostly based on confidential sources -- are impossible to immediately verify. But they look almost certain to heighten public attention in the U.S. and Europe to Iran's nuclear program. Shortened versions of the report also appeared in two other major U.S. dailies, the "Chicago Tribune" and "The Boston Globe."

The report also could increase pressure on the Bush administration to ensure that Iran stops its alleged nuclear development activities.

One major U.S. daily, "The Christian Science Monitor," wrote in an editorial today that "as if North Korea were not challenge enough, Washington must decide what to do about mounting evidence that Iran will soon have a nuclear bomb."

The paper continued: "So far the United States has relied on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and economic sanctions to try to rein in Iran's weapons program. Clearly it hasn't been enough. Observers say a bomb may be only two to three years away."