Sunday, June 27, 2004

LONDON — Western intelligence officials are examining reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attempted to cover up a nuclear accident that occurred during the delivery of a secret shipment of weapons-grade uranium from North Korea.

The accident purportedly caused Tehran’s new $475 million international airport to be sealed off by Revolutionary Guard commanders within hours of its official opening May 9.

The first scheduled commercial flight was diverted before landing that day and the Revolutionary Guard blamed the incident on “security problems.”

Seven weeks later, the showpiece airport named after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, is still closed. All commercial flights are required to use the capital’s aging Mehrabad complex.

Although the airport, 30 miles south of Tehran, was not ready to take commercial traffic until this spring, military flights have landed there for at least two years.

In December 2002, according to officials with access to the airport, a North Korean cargo jet delivering a consignment of nuclear technology, including some weapons-grade uranium, was being unloaded at night under military supervision. During the delivery, a container slipped and cracked on the tarmac.

Crews from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), wearing protective suits, were brought in to clean up the spillage. The scientists worked at the site for several days, staying indoors during daylight and working only in darkness.

They later determined that the site had been completely decontaminated, and Revolutionary Guards allowed airport construction to resume, the sources said.

Their attitude changed, however, after inspectors working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uncovered evidence in June 2003 that Iran had secretly enriched uranium to weapons grade at the Kalaye electric centrifuge plant, on the outskirts of Tehran. Iran had previously denied having the necessary technology.

The revelations embarrassed Revolutionary Guard commanders, who are responsible for protecting Iran’s secret nuclear facilities, and prompted the IAEA to intensify pressure on Tehran for a full disclosure of its nuclear program.

Iranian aviation officials, who refused to be identified, said the Revolutionary Guards ordered the closure of Khomeini International Airport in case the IAEA inspectors detected deposits of enriched uranium.

The airport is expected to remain closed until Russian nuclear experts can examine the site of the spill and make sure that no traces of the illegal shipment remain, the sources said.

“We are aware of the concerns being expressed by Iranian aviation experts and are trying to investigate them. The problem is that the Revolutionary Guards will not allow access to the airport to any foreign nationals, including U.N. inspectors,” a senior Western intelligence official said.

Earlier this month, the IAEA rebuked Iran over its failure to give a full account of its atomic program as suspicions mounted that Iran is continuing with its efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Last week, American intelligence officials provided satellite evidence that they said showed a nuclear site on the outskirts of Tehran.

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