Wednesday, June 15, 2005
North Korea to help Iran dig secret missile bunkers.
Iran is secretly negotiating with North Korea to build a network of underground bunkers to conceal its clandestine nuclear weapons project.
A team of construction experts has arrived in Teheran to conduct a survey of Iranian requirements. It included a senior North Korean specialist in underground construction who helped to design the bunkers that contain Pyongyang's illegal weapons programme.
Current talks centre on whether the North Koreans will undertake the work for the Iranians, or act as advisers to Iranian construction companies.
The North Koreans specialise in the equipment and technology used in the construction of underground complexes. In the past, the Communist dictatorship has supplied tunnel-digging equipment for military purposes to Iraq, Syria and Libya.
The legal department of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which is undertaking the project, recently summoned the managers of dozens of construction companies to discuss possible contracts.
The disclosure that Iran is continuing with its efforts to conceal details of its nuclear weapons programme comes as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations-sponsored nuclear watchdog, prepares to publish later this week the latest report by its weapons inspectors into Iran's nuclear programme.
"The Iranians are clearly feeling the heat over their attempts to build a nuclear bomb," said a senior Western intelligence official last week. "They are desperate to keep the bomb-making part of their programme secret." Iran insists that it is interested only in developing peaceful nuclear energy, but American and British officials are convinced that Teheran is working on a clandestine nuclear weapons project.
The Iranians were deeply embarrassed two years ago when traces of weapons grade uranium were found in soil samples taken from one of their nuclear research centres, prompting IAEA nuclear experts to intensify their investigation of Teheran's nuclear programme.
The Iranians have long admired the North Koreans' ability to conceal their own nuclear weapons programme, despite being under constant surveillance by United States spy satellites.
Last week, in the most detailed discussion by the regime of its nuclear capabilities, the vice-foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, told an American television channel that Pyongyang had enough nuclear weapons to resist an attack on the country by the US, and was building more.
"As for specifically how many we have, that is a secret," he told ABC in an interview.
The Pentagon estimates that North Korea has gathered enough material for at least six plutonium-based bombs since expelling IAEA inspectors more than two years ago. US officials privately concede that they still do not know their precise location.
The Iranians have tried to build their own underground facilities but these were quickly discovered by IAEA inspectors. Now Teheran wants help to build a large new network of tunnels and caves at a secret location in central Iran.
According to Western intelligence reports, the first stage of the proposed project would involve the construction of 10,000 square metres of underground bunkers. Each bunker would be divided into spaces of 1,000-2,500 square metres, big enough to house the equipment needed to produce weapons grade uranium.
In recent months, Teheran has engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Last week, it threatened to withdraw from talks with Britain, France and Germany - the so-called EU3 - on eliminating the more controversial aspects of its nuclear programme, such as processing weapons grade uranium.
Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment programme last year following detailed negotiations with the EU3, but last month provoked a diplomatic crisis when it threatened to continue its efforts to enrich uranium.
Western intelligence officers now believe that the Iranians are trying to string out the EU3 talks in order to give themselves time to hide those elements of the programme that they do not want to declare.
Teheran has co-operated with North Korea on developing long-range ballistic missiles and bought a number of North Korean No-dong missiles, which were used to develop Iran's own Shahab-3 missile system.