Iran claimed Wednesday that a newly built U.N. station to detect nuclear explosions was set up near its border so that world powers could spy on the country, an accusation that underscored the growing bitterness in Tehran's relations with the West.
Construction was completed last week on the seismic monitoring station in neighboring Turkmenistan, a few miles from the Iranian border. It is one of roughly 275 such facilities operating around the world to detect seismic activity set off by blasts from nuclear tests — such as ones in recent years by North Korea.
Iran protested the facility even though it asserts it is not trying to produce nuclear arms. Tehran has been resisting heavy pressure in recent months to sign on to a U.N.-backed plan aimed at thwarting any attempt to build atomic weapons.
Abolfazl Zohrehvand, an adviser to Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, said the international treaty that allows for setting up such observatories is an "espionage treaty."
"With the disclosure of the identity of such stations, it is clear the activity of one of them (in Turkmenistan) is to monitor Iran," Zohrehvand told state IRNA news agency.
The U.N. commission that seeks to ban all nuclear tests said the decision to build the station was made more than a decade ago with Iran's involvement. There are already three similar stations inside Iran itself — in Tehran and the southern towns of Shushtar and Kerman, according to the commission.
Suspicions deepen on both sides
The network of sensors monitors nuclear explosions worldwide, not in a specific country, said Annika Thunborg, a spokeswoman for the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, or CTBTO. She said the new facility was unconnected to concerns over Iran's program.
"The building of the station has nothing to do with recent reports about Iran," Thunborg said. "Iran is a member state of the CTBTO, together with 181 other countries, and is party to the decisions made by the CTBTO."
The CTBTO announced last week on its Web site that the new nuclear warning station has been set up between Turkmenistan's Karakum Desert and the Kopet mountain range. It said the station has now been fully constructed and is currently undergoing testing.
But Iran's Zohrehvand said the CTBTO is a "security and espionage treaty, even more dangerous" than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's additional protocol, which allows intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities in particular member states. Iran is a member of both the CTBTO and the NPT.
The U.S. and some of its allies suspect Iran's nuclear program is a cover to secretly develop nuclear weapons. Iran has denied it and said the program is geared toward generating electricity.
Iran and the West are deadlocked over a U.N. proposal for Tehran to send the bulk of its enriched uranium abroad. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used as nuclear fuel but enriched to higher levels, it can be used at material for a nuclear bomb.
The U.N. proposal is aimed at drastically reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium in hopes of thwarting the country's ability to make a nuclear weapon. So far, Iran has balked at the offer and defiantly announced it intends to build the 10 new uranium enrichment sites. That statement drew a forceful rebuke from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
The U.S. and its allies are threatening to impose more sanctions on Iran if it does not cooperate.
Location sparks debate
Thunborg dismissed the idea that the new station was specifically focused on Iran, saying the placement of a particular station was unrelated to the location of a test it detects. She pointed to North Korea's nuclear tests in May 2009 and in 2006. The CTBTO's system detected seismic waves from the blasts.
In the 2006 test, "23 stations worldwide, among them a station as far away as La Paz, Bolivia picked up the signals loud and clear," she said.
"In May 2009, when the DPRK declared another nuclear test, 61 seismic stations picked up the event — from Ussuriysk, Russia to Texas," she added, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The decision to build the seismic station in Turkmenistan was made between 1994 and 1996, with Iranian involvement, said Thunborg. At that time, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a relative pragmatist, was president of Iran.
Rafsanjani is now the most senior member of the clerical establishment believed to side with the opposition movement against hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the disputed June presidential election.