Monday, June 9, 2003

NEW YORK — An Iranian government official with ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Tehran sides with the Americans on one big issue — Saddam Hussein’s weapons.

“Yes, we agree with the Americans. Our intelligence indicated that Iraq did possess weapons of mass destruction and was hiding them from the U.N.,” the official said.

The official, from the top ranks of Iran’s cleric-led government, asked to remain anonymous amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.

He went on to say that the big question is, “What did the Iraqis do with these weapons?”

Although Tehran does not know where these weapons may be today, there is a strong suspicion that some may have filtered onto local black markets.

“We know other items, once under military control [such as broadcast transmission equipment], have found their way onto the black market,” the official said.

“We have people coming to Tehran from Baghdad with catalogs of items [stolen from the Iraqi government] offering them for sale.”

So far, the official said, no chemical, biological or related weapons have turned up.

His remarks come amid criticism of the Bush administration and the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both governments cited Iraq’s deadly weapons as a reason for going to war.

In Tehran yesterday, Iran said foreign pressure over its nuclear capabilities would backfire and harden Iran’s position.

Since its rapid conquest of Iraq, Washington has tightened the screws on neighboring Iran, which it accuses of sheltering al Qaeda fugitives, backing terrorism and developing nuclear weapons.

“Excessive pressure on Iran would untie the hands of those who do not believe in dialogue,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi. “Even those who favor constructive talks would not accept the language of force and threat.”

The United States and European Union are divided over Iran. The EU favors a policy of encouraging embattled reformers around President Mohammed Khatami, while Washington argues this is a waste of time because he has no real power to effect change.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, in a report obtained by Reuters on Friday, accused Iran of not complying with safeguards to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and sent a team of inspectors to the country on Saturday.

Fresh from war in Iraq over banned weapons, the United States described the report as “deeply troubling.”

Since the Iraq war, U.S. administration hawks have raised the specter of military action against Iran, but President Bush, who put Iran in an “axis of evil” with prewar Iraq and North Korea, has denied that he has plans to attack it.

Even so, many in Iran suspect that the Islamic Republic may be next on a U.S. hit list of regimes to be overthrown.

“We hope Iran’s constructive cooperation with the agency and other countries makes the international community better aware of America’s evil intentions,” Mr. Asefi said.

“We are always alert about America’s policies … but we have no doubt the Americans won’t be deluded into mistaking Iran for Iraq. Such a mistake would be irreparable,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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