Iran has been concealing part of its nuclear program in purpose-built tunnels for several years, an Iranian opposition group said before talks resume in Vienna tomorrow between the Islamic Republic and the European Union.
Underground facilities have been built in at least 14 sites near Tehran, Isfahan, and Qom, Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the opposition National Council of the Resistance, said at a news conference in Paris, citing what he called ``reliable sources within the clerical regime.''
``The tunnels are particularly used for hiding research centers, workshops, nuclear equipment, and nuclear and missile command and control centers,'' Mohaddessin said. ``We call on the International Atomic Energy Agency to urgently inspect the tunnels.'' The program was personally authorized by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, he said. The Iranian Embassy in Paris didn't answer calls seeking comment.
The allegation comes a day before talks between Iran and the EU, represented by France, Germany and the U.K., open in Vienna. They broke down in August after Iran, the Middle East's No. 2 oil producer, said it was resuming uranium conversion, a step to increase the concentration of the U-235 isotope that starts and sustains a nuclear reaction.
The U.S. says Iran intends to produce fissile material to build atomic weapons, while the Tehran government maintains that its nuclear program is aimed only at power production.
All the tunnel construction was supervised by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and by General Hassan Firoozabadi, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian army; building started as early as 1989, Mohaddessin said.
Some tunnels have been dug into mountains and then separate into several smaller cavities. Some go down vertically into the ground and branch out at a certain depth. Others are trenches cut into the surface of the ground and covered with cement and camouflaged to resemble hills, Mohaddessin said.
Lead has been used to line the tunnels to stop any leakage of radiation and sound to the surrounding environment and to prevent detection by IAEA investigators, he said.
A tunnel complex which includes a production line for ballistic missiles which could carry nuclear warheads, is located in the Khojeer region, southeast of Tehran, Mohaddessin said. It consists of dozens of secret tunnels; the main one is a kilometer (0.6 miles) long and 12 meters (39 feet) wide. The tunnel subsequently branches out into five other 500 meter-long tunnels.
One of the organizations involved in tunnel building is the Iranian Tunneling Association, which was funded in 1998 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became Iran's president in August.
The board of the IAEA voted in September to refer the dispute over Iran's nuclear enrichment program to the 15-nation United Nations Security Council, without setting a date. The U.S. and its European allies decided last month not to press for referral immediately to allow more time for an agreement that would permit Iran's uranium enrichment to take place in Russia.
The National Council of the Resistance was founded in July 1981 to oppose the Islamic Republic in Iran. It includes groups such as the People's Mujahedeen, the Organization of Iranian People's Fadaian Guerrillas and the Committed Professors of Iran's Universities and Schools of Higher Education. Its headquarters are at Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris.