Iran has been constructing a secret tunnel since October to continue uranium enrichment, despite a deal two weeks ago to freeze the program, German news weekly Der Spiegel reported in an issue to be published Monday.
Ayatollah Khamenei is said to have ordered a secret nuclear facility
Der Spiegel, citing a secret service file, said that Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had personally ordered the facility built last month near the uranium enrichment site in Isfahan that is under UN observation. The tunnel, which the magazine said is out of the view of spy satellites, is intended to house a production site for large amounts of uranium UF6 gas which can be enriched in gas centrifuges -- a key step in the building of a nuclear bomb. The clandestine project is being led by a task force that answers directly to Khamenei, the report said.
But in Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the report was "baseless" and that it was ridiculous to suggest Iran would even try to hide such a facility. "The ministry of roads and transportation builds lots of tunnels in Iran. But this news is baseless. In the world today, with all the radars and spy satellites which see everything, how can we hide a tunnel?" he said.
Iran insists it has declared all of its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, which has been probing the country for two years. And despite talks having broken off ahead of an IAEA meeting Monday, Tehran remains confident that it is close to a deal with the EU over a freeze of uranium enrichment activities.
"There is no deadlock. We are on the way forward and the corrections the Europeans have made in the text of the resolution (for the UN meeting) are positive," said the Iranian spokesman in Vienna, Hossein Moussavian, according to AFP news agency.
A uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, central Iran
The Iran-EU talks broke off Saturday, opening the door to moves towards UN sanctions. A diplomat close to the talks said Britain, France and Germany had given Iran until late Sunday to agree to a full freeze, including 20 disputed centrifuges, or they would table a tough resolution at the IAEA meeting.
"Not the end of the world"
Moussavian's comments were in contrast to more confrontational statements being made in Tehran; Iran on Sunday stuck by its demand that the 20 centrifuges be exempted from its suspension pledge and shrugged off the danger of being referred to the UN Security Council as "not the end of the world."
The United States wants the IAEA to bring Iran before the Security Council, which could impose punishing economic sanctions, for what Washington says is a secret nuclear weapons program. But EU negotiators Britain, France and Germany have for over a year been stressing a policy of "constructive engagement" to get Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and have proposed an accommodating resolution to the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors, in a meeting that began Thursday and was on Friday adjourned until Monday.
Diplomats said Iran was sending mixed signals as hardliners in Tehran are resisting cutting a nuclear deal. The hardliners "don't trust the process of negotiation. They say that Europe is asking too much and not giving Iran anything," a diplomat close to the talks said.
The EU has promised increased trade, which would include helping Iran get into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and a host of other incentives, but these are to come in a long-term agreement to be worked out after the suspension is in effect.
Iran wants R&D exemption
Chairwoman Ingrid Holl from Canada at the start of the 35-nation board of governors meeting of the IAEA on Friday.
But another problem, which could torpedo the talks, is that Iran is insisting on its right to continue nuclear research. Iran had agreed with the European trio before the IAEA meeting on the enrichment freeze. But it now says it wants to continue "research and development" with the 20 centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium to make nuclear fuel but also what can be the raw material for atomic weapons.
"The question of research and development has nothing to do with a suspension," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said.
The crisis is now at a crucial point since the European trio, who insist on an unconditional suspension of all enrichment activities, are losing patience with Iran, and threatening to join the hardline US side, diplomats said.
"We have no progress. It is up to the Iranians now to ponder what they will do," a European diplomat close to the talks told AFP Saturday after Iran-EU negotiations broke off and a Sunday deadline for Iran to signal compliance was set. "They have a very serious decision to make," the diplomat said.