Key Iranian nuclear scientist ‘worked at secret site’

Opposition group says site at Abadeh, in central Iran, was built by companies controlled by Revolutionary Guards

This March 27, 2019, satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows an area near Abadeh, Iran, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, alleged was a site where Iran "conducted experiments to develop nuclear weapons." Iran has not directly responded to Netanyahu's claim, which comes in the final stages of Israeli national elections, drawing criticism from Netanyahu's opponents that the sudden news conference and release of information about the site was a campaign stunt. The site appears to have been destroyed shown on another satellite image taken on Aug. 12, 2019, by Maxar Technologies of the same area. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

A protege of the godfather of Iran's nuclear weapons programme carried out experiments at a secret facility at the centre of a new dispute between Tehran and the UN's atomic watchdog, an Iranian opposition group claimed on Tuesday.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – which helped uncover Iran's secret weapons programme two decades ago – said it uncovered a web of front companies and connections that pointed to the facility in the central Iranian city of Abadeh being used for weapons research.

The group said that one of the regime’s top explosives experts, Saeed Borji, had worked there and reported directly to the foremost Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Mr Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in an Israeli operation last year, as he was driven to his home outside Tehran.

The latest claims come after the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), found uranium particles at two sites it inspected after months of stonewalling.

The UN has not identified the sites, but NCRI claimed that one of them was at Abadeh.

Abadeh was first identified as a weapons site in October 2019 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This was based on information from Iranian files stolen in a raid by Israeli agents on a storage depot on the outskirts of Tehran.

Mr Netanyahu said that Tehran destroyed the facility in around July 2019, after learning that tight security around the site had been breached.

He claimed that Iran had used the site to conduct experiments to develop nuclear weapons.

The dissident group said on Tuesday that the site was built in the mid-1990s by companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was part of a project managed by the body in charge of developing nuclear weapons.

It claimed that internal reports pointed to Mr Borji working at the site with two colleagues in 2011.

International inspectors were only allowed to visit the site in August 2020.

US intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, co-ordinated nuclear weapons programme that it halted in 2003. Iran denies this.

The 2015 nuclear deal effectively drew a line under that past, but Iran is still required to explain evidence of undeclared past activities or material to the IAEA. The uranium was found during snap IAEA inspections at two sites in August and September.

“The discovery of uranium particles at two suspect sites demonstrates very clearly that the regime continues to violate the [2015] agreement,” said Robert Joseph, a former senior counter-proliferation official during the presidency of George W Bush, at a briefing organised by NCRI.

Iran has warned nuclear diplomacy could fall apart if France, Germany and the UK went ahead with a plan to condemn Tehran's partial suspension of inspections from the IAEA at a board meeting on Friday.

It comes as the US seeks a way to rejoin the 2015 agreement, dumped by former president Donald Trump. However, it faces demands from Tehran that it first ends sanctions.