The State Department Wednesday expressed concern about the role of the Iranian military in the country's nuclear efforts. An Iranian exile group charged this week that that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has put the military in firm control of the program.
The United States has long maintained that the nominally peaceful Iranian nuclear program has a secret weapons component. And officials here say the latest report should only add to international concerns about Iran's intentions.
The Washington Times newspaper quoted an anti-regime Iranian exile group Wednesday as saying that since his election in July, President Ahmadinejad has put the military "firmly in control" of the nuclear program, in a move that undercuts Tehran's claim that the effort is entirely peaceful.
An official of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) told the newspaper the reliance on the military, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, is part of an effort by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to eliminate bureaucratic and political obstacles to obtaining nuclear weapons.
The NCRI is the political wing of the secular Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which conducted attacks against Iran from neighboring Iraq before the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and which has been designated a terrorist group by the United States.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States has no contact with the NCRI or the MEK and cannot vouch for the veracity of the latest report.
At the same time, he said there are pre-existing concerns and questions about the Iranian military's role in the nuclear program, and that the matter is a subject of a continuing investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"The fact that there are those outstanding questions, and it's not only the United States, but it's the IAEA that has the concerns, I think it stands to reason that the one logical conclusion of the military involvement in a nuclear program is that they're trying to build a nuclear weapon. And that has been our concern for some time," said Mr. McCormack.
Mr. McCormack said the IAEA has already confirmed that the Iranian military oversees many of the uranium centrifuge workshops in Iran, and that an Iranian military organization conducted nuclear-related work at a facility at Lavizan on the outskirts of Tehran.
Iran demolished the Lavizan site, and scraped away topsoil surrounding it, in late 2003 or early 2004 before the IAEA could access the site, in activity nuclear experts said was highly suspicious.
Spokesman McCormack also said Iran has refused to give the U.N. agency full access to an Iranian high-explosive facility at Parchin, southeast of the capital, that has also been linked to possible nuclear weapons activity.
The Bush administration closed the U.S. offices of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and froze its assets in May 2003.
Despite its status, the group has been a major source of information on clandestine Iranian nuclear activity and its release last year of satellite photos of both the Lavizan and Parchin sites was the first time they had been brought to public attention.