By Philip Sherwell in Washington
The Sunday Telegraph – Iranian scientists are secretly conducting crucial nuclear research and development, using university laboratories as cover to avoid international scrutiny, according to highly placed opposition supporters within the Islamic regime.
Teheran’s Imam Hossein University, which is run on military brigade lines by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is the main centre for experiments on nuclear weapon technology, the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reported.
Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted that Iran had successfully enriched uranium as it forges ahead with the nuclear programme, which he claims is intended solely to generate energy, but which the West believes is intended for atomic weapons.
The belligerent Iranian hardliner followed up that claim with a fresh diatribe against Israel, which he described on Friday as "a rotten, dried tree", which would be annihilated by "a storm". He has previously called for the country to be "wiped from the map".
Teheran is publicly flagging up its "peaceful" nuclear know-how in its showdown with the international community. But, at the same time, scientists with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were conducting secret trials on military aspects of the programme, opposition figures said.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the NCRI official who revealed the existence of the clerics’ clandestine nuclear programme to the world in 2002, told the Sunday Telegraph that the latest information came from the same sources within the regime’s national security structure.
He named 21 professors and researchers involved in nuclear work at the Imam Hossein University, many of whom also hold senior IRGC posts, as proof that the Revolutionary Guards were running Iran’s supposedly "civilian" nuclear programme.
The IRGC’s influence in the regime has strengthened since the election last year of Mr Ahmadinejad, who was a brigadier general in its Quds (Jerusalem) Force, the wing linked to a series of international terror attacks.
In a sign of the importance of the Imam Hossein University, Iran’s leader visited the campus in September for a briefing shortly after his return from the United Nations in New York, where he robustly defended Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In a photograph not previously published in Britain, the president is shown inspecting students in military cadet uniforms. He was told of "research achievements in the domains of defence and national security, basic sciences as well as technical and engineering fields", the Teheran-based Fars news agency reported.
Clandestine nuclear research is being led by scientists who were student radicals in the Islamic revolution that overthrew the last Shah in 1979, and share the activist background of Mr Ahmadinejad, 49.
Fereydoon Abbasi, 48, head of physics, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, has overseen the transfer of several nuclear experts to the university from other institutions.
Other key figures include Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, 45, a nuclear engineer whom the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has unsuccessfully sought to question, and Mansour Asgari, 48, a laser expert. They both lecture at Imam Hossein, but are based at the Centre for Readiness and New Defence Technology, to which the IAEA has been refused access by the regime.
Dr Abbasi recently oversaw tests on the high-powered emission of neutrons by a neutron generator, Mr Jafarzadeh said. Other work is believed to focus on beryllium oxide (which has possible nuclear applications), laser-enrichment, nuclear trigger experiments and tests on bomb materials.
"Imam Hossein university has a top-notch nuclear physics department," said Mr Jafarzadeh. "The work they are doing there is crucial to the nuclear programme and it has never been inspected.
"While Ahmadinejad is proudly proclaiming the regime’s uranium enrichment success, he is concealing the central role of the Revolutionary Guards corps and its Iman Hossein University in the secret rush to acquire the nuclear bomb."
The United States will urge its allies this week to consider punitive measures – including a freeze on assets, targeted sanctions and travel restrictions – against Iranian leaders. Senior officials from the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany meet in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss their response to Iran’s announcement that it had joined the "nuclear club".
The declaration came the day before a visit to Teheran by Mohamed El Baradei, the IAEA chief, in a clear snub to the UN’s atomic watchdog. The UN Security Council has given Iran until April 28 to halt all enrichment activity, but is divided over what to do if Teheran ignores the ultimatum.
The head of the Revolutionary Guards warned the US on Friday not to attack the Islamic republic, saying American troops in Iraq and the region were "vulnerable".
"You can start a war but it won’t be you who finishes it," said General Yahya Rahim Safavi, one of the regime’s most powerful figures. "The Americans know that their troops are vulnerable. I would advise them not to commit such a strategic error."