Iran says UN station will be used for spying

Facility was built to detect nuclear blasts worldwide

By Ali Akbar Dareini
Associated Press / December 10, 2009

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TEHRAN - Iran said yesterday that a newly built UN 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 about 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 UN-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 UN 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, according to the commission.

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. She said the new facility was unconnected to concerns over Iran’s program.

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 said the station has now been fully constructed and is undergoing testing.

But 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 United States and some of its allies suspect Iran’s nuclear program is a cover to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has denied it and said the program is geared toward generating electricity.

Iran and the West are deadlocked over a UN 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 for a nuclear bomb.

The UN 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 said it intends to build the 10 new uranium enrichment sites. That statement drew a forceful rebuke from the UN nuclear watchdog agency.

Thunborg said the placement of a particular station was unrelated to the location of a test it detects. In a 2006 North Korean test, “23 stations worldwide, among them a station as far away as La Paz, Bolivia, picked up the signals loud and clear,’’ she said.