London (AFP) Oct 16, 2005
Former members of the Russian military have been secretly helping Iran obtain the technology needed to make missiles capable of hitting European capitals, a British newspaper claimed on Sunday.
Citing anonymous "Western intelligence officials", The Sunday Telegraph said the Russians were go-betweens as part of a multi-million-pound (dollar, euro) deal they negotiated between Iran and North Korea in 2003.
"It has enabled Teheran to receive regular clandestine shipments of top secret missile technology, believed to be channelled through Russia," the newspaper reported in a front-page article.
The allegations came after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice feuded openly with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov over Iran's nuclear programme while on a brief trip to Moscow on Saturday.
The article also emerged as Rice prepared to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London later Sunday.
According to the Telegraph, Iran would be able to use its new technology to build a missile with a range of 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles).
"It is designed to carry a 1.2-ton payload, sufficient for a basic nuclear device," the newspaper said.
It quoted a senior US official as saying Iran's programme was "sophisticated and getting larger and more accurate. They have had very much in mind the payload needed to carry a nuclear weapon.
"I think (Russian President Vladimir) Putin knows what the Iranians are doing."
Washington has long suspected that Iran is using its nuclear power programme as cover to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons, a suspicion Tehran says is unfounded. It insists that its nuclear activities are designed to generate energy purely for civil purposes.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended Tehran's right to enrich uranium for atomic energy while Rice, who met later with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Iran could not be trusted with the process.
In a packed schedule, the top US diplomat was due to have dinner with her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, later on Saturday before meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday.
Washington and Moscow's diverging opinions over whether Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium for any purpose were painfully apparent when Rice and Lavrov spoke to reporters after a lengthy discussion.
"All members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have this right," said Lavrov, adding that Russia had seen no evidence to support US claims that the Islamic republic sought to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy program.
Rice retorted: "It is not a question of rights... the NPT doesn't come only with rights but also with obligations. This is not an issue of rights but of whether or not the fuel cycle can be trusted in Iran."
While their comments only reiterated the well-known and differing positions of Russia and the United States on the Iran nuclear question, the spectacle of Lavrov and Rice arguing over the specific point of the enrichment process was an unusual occurrence and underscored their split.
Russia and the United States also disagree on whether Iran should be brought before the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions.
Washington is for the move and Moscow against.
Lavrov said Russia saw no reason at present to transfer the Iran dossier from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to another organisation.
For her part, Rice -- speaking to reporters travelling with her by plane to London -- said: "We are prepared to let that course proceed."
But she added: "At the same time, I think we have to prepare for the possibility that that course might not lead to fruitful negotiations.
"At which point, as the (French) Foreign Minister (Philippe Douste-Blazy) and I said yesterday in France, we have the option of referral to the Security Council. Let's go step by step."
Rice made a short stop in Paris on Friday where she also met French President Jacques Chirac.
Russia says it shares US opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, but insists there is no evidence that Tehran is trying to do so.
Earlier this year, Iran agreed to tighter controls on fuel rods used to generate nuclear energy, signing an agreement with Russia under which Moscow would deliver the fuel and then recover the spent fuel rods under international supervision.
Rice reiterated the US view that oil-rich Iran "needs no civilian nuclear program", but acknowledged that the nuclear fuel agreement with Russia "is a reliable way to make certain that there are no problems with the fuel cycle."
Tehran froze atomic fuel cycle work two years ago as a confidence-building measure amid talks with the European Union on guaranteeing that it was not secretly developing nuclear weapons. It resumed conversion work in August but held off from actual enrichment.
At a meeting last month, the IAEA, the UN's nuclear watchdog, passed a resolution that said Iran was in "non-compliance" with the NPT, laying the groundwork for the case to be sent to the UN Security Council.
The IAEA is set to meet again in Vienna on November 24 but Rice, who appeared to have failed to secure Russia's support on the matter, was careful not to present this date as a deadline.
She said the Security Council would be addressed "at the time of our choosing".
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