- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

VIENNA, Austria — Iran has expanded its uranium-conversion facilities in Isfahan and reinforced its Natanz underground uranium-enrichment plant, a U.S. think tank said amid growing speculation about U.S. military action.

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani responded yesterday to a published report that Washington was mulling the use of tactical nuclear weapons to knock out Iran’s subterranean nuclear sites. Any U.S. attack on Iran would plunge the region into instability, he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also warned that U.S. military intervention in Iran was not the best solution to resolve the nuclear standoff, and a leading U.S. senator called for direct U.S. talks with Iran.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in an e-mail that Iran has built a new tunnel entrance at a uranium-processing plant in Isfahan.

“This new entrance is indicative of a new underground facility or further expansion of the existing one,” said the Washington-based institute, led by ex-U.N. arms inspector and nuclear specialist David Albright.

ISIS also released four satellite images taken between 2002 and January 2006, saying they showed Natanz’s two subterranean cascade halls being buried by successive layers of earth, apparent concrete slabs, and more earth and other materials.

The roofs of the halls now appear to be 26 feet underground, ISIS said.

The revelations came one week after Iran announced it had enriched uranium for use in power stations for the first time, stoking Western suspicions of a covert Iranian atomic bomb project. Iran says it seeks only civilian nuclear power.

Wielding the threat of sanctions, the U.N. Security Council has urged Iran to stop enrichment work and asked nuclear watchdog head Mohamed ElBaradei to report on Tehran’s reply by April 28.

Iran stood its ground when Mr. ElBaradei visited the country last week.

President Bush has dismissed reports of plans for a military strike against Iran as “wild speculation” and said he remained focused on diplomacy to defuse the standoff. But analysts said Iran was not taking any chances.

“Iran is taking extraordinary precautions to try to protect its nuclear assets. But the growing talk of eliminating Iran’s nuclear program from the air is pretty glib,” Mr. Albright said by telephone from Washington.

Despite Mr. Bush’s denial, Mr. Rafsanjani said Tehran could not discount the possibility of a U.S. military strike.

“Harm will not only engulf the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the region and everybody,” the influential Iranian leader said during a visit to Syria.

In what was seen as another slap at the West, Iran announced yesterday that it will give the financially strapped Palestinian Authority $50 million in aid. The assistance, if given, would be the first Iran has provided to the Palestinian Authority.

The United States and Europe have cut off aid to the Hamas-led authority because of its refusal to renounce violence, recognize Israel or respect past agreements with the Jewish state.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Tehran was still seeking a diplomatic solution for the nuclear crisis, but “America should be aware it is not in a position to create another crisis in the region,” an apparent reference to Iraq.

A hard-line Iranian group said yesterday 200 persons had signed up in the past few days to carry out “martyrdom missions” against U.S. and British interests if Iran was attacked.

In Washington, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should hold direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program and go slow on sanctions. “We need to make more headway diplomatically” before moving toward sanctions, Mr. Lugar said on the ABC television program “This Week.”

Mr. Annan told Spain’s ABC daily that the situation was “too heated” and could not withstand any further aggravation.

“I still think the best solution is a negotiated one, and I don’t see what would be solved by a military operation,” he said. “I hope the will to negotiate prevails and that the military option proves to be only speculation.”

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