Interception of several technology shipments to Iran has bolstered U.S. suspicions that Iran is secretly developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten Europe and possibly the United States.
An intelligence report this week to Congress said North Korea, China and parts of the former Soviet Union provided Iran through the end of last year with ballistic-missile equipment, technology and expertise.
The report said Iran, in trying to improve existing missiles, was “also pursuing longer-range ballistic missiles.”
A well-placed Bush administration official told the Associated Press on Thursday that U.S. interceptions had strengthened U.S. suspicions that Iran was trying to develop an intercontinental missile that could reach Europe and possibly the United States.
No details on seized material
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to specify what material was intercepted and to identify the countries that sought to help Iran.
But he said North Korea, China and Russia all have contributed technology to Iran for its existing Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of about 600 miles and is believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
An Iranian spokesman at the United Nations in New York has been quoted as denying that Iran was developing a ballistic missile with a range beyond 1,250 miles.
The U.S. official said the project was being cloaked in terms of work on a space-launched booster missile.
The official said Iran was trying to expand the range of the Shahab-3 missile, which is a replica of a North Korean missile, so it could travel 1,250 miles.
Both newer missiles would be capable of carrying nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological weapons, the official said.
Powell said Iran adapting missiles
Secretary of State Colin Powell last month said Iran was trying to adapt missiles to deliver nuclear weapons.
“I have seen some information that would agree that they have been actively working on delivery systems,” Powell said.
This week’s intelligence report to Congress said, “Iran continued to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons” and that Iran “is also working to improve delivery systems.”
Daryl Kimball, president of the private Arms Control Association, said, “It would not be surprising that Iranian engineers may be conducting paper studies of longer-range missiles.”
But, he added, there was a great difference between a paper study and a proven missile capability.
Kimball said there were substantial technical difficulties in building a longer-range missile that also could carry nuclear warheads.
Expert ‘cautious’ about assessment
“So we must be cautious in these estimates and understand that Iran is still years off from a proven capability for intercontinental ballistic missiles,” he said.
Iran has promised to temporarily suspend all programs, including enrichment of uranium, that could be involved in developing nuclear weapons.
President Bush has called the promise a positive first step. But he also insisted on international verification and on a permanent halt of the programs.
Diplomats told the AP in Vienna, the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran may be hiding equipment bought by its military that could be used in a nuclear weapons program despite the promised freeze.
Iran also has not responded to or denied IAEA requests for inspections at or complete lists of components used at suspect military sites, the diplomats said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday, “We would expect Iran to comply with all requests.”