Iran has formed a top secret team of nuclear specialists to infiltrate the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, the UN-sponsored body that monitors its nuclear programme, The Daily Telegraph has been told.
Its target is the IAEA’s safeguards division and its aim is to obtain information on the work of IAEA inspectors so that Iran can conceal the more sensitive areas of its nuclear research, according to information recently received by western intelligence.
Teheran insists that the sole purpose of the controversial programme is to develop alternative energy sources. But many western governments, including Britain and the United States, believe it is secretly developing a nuclear arsenal.
The operation to target the IAEA is being run by Hosein Afarideh, the former head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee.
Mr Afarideh, reported to have close links with Iran’s ministry of intelligence, is in regular contact with a team of Iranian nuclear engineers seconded to work at the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters.
According to western intelligence reports, Mr Afarideh heads a three-man team at the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran in Teheran, to prevent more embarrassing disclosures about its nuclear facilities.
In the past the Iranians have managed to conceal key facilities from IAEA inspectors, including the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, 100 miles north of Isfahan. They were reluctantly forced to admit the existence of Natanz and other top secret facilities three years ago after Iranian exile groups provided details of their operations.
As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to full access to the IAEA for help with the development of its nuclear programme, so long as it is purely for peaceful purposes.
But western intelligence officials believe that the Iranians are now taking advantage of their access to the IAEA to spy on its inspection procedures so that they can conceal sensitive areas of their nuclear operations from the outside world.
“The Iranians are getting increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of the IAEA’s inspections,” a senior western intelligence official told The Daily Telegraph.
“For this reason they are deliberately targeting the IAEA so that they can be better prepared when the inspectors visit their facilities.”
An IAEA spokesman refused to comment on the intelligence reports. However, an official who confirmed that a number of Iranian nuclear engineers were working at the IAEA’s headquarters said the agency had set up stringent safeguards to ensure that no country had access to the inspection teams investigating its nuclear facilities.
“We have a firewall system that prevents any member state finding out how the inspection teams working on that country operate,” said the official.
Despite this close supervision, Iranian scientists working at the IAEA in Vienna travel frequently to Teheran, where they meet Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran officials including Mr Afarideh. Mr Afarideh is also in close contact with Mohsein Fakhrizadeh, head of the organisation’s physical research centre.
IAEA inspectors have made repeated requests to interview Mr Fakhrizadeh about key aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. But the Iranian government has refused to grant them access to him.
IAEA experts predict that Iran will be able to produce weapons-grade uranium within three years if the processing plants operate without international supervision.