ISTANBUL -- Senior Iranian officials are overseeing efforts to conceal key elements of the country's nuclear program from international inspectors, according to Western diplomats and an intelligence report.
If the coverup is confirmed, it would bolster a US assertion that Iran is trying to hide a secret nuclear weapons program.
Iran set up a committee to coordinate the concealment efforts after international inspectors uncovered evidence late last year that the Islamic republic had tried to hide aspects of its nuclear program, including secret research on advanced centrifuges that can produce weapons-grade uranium, according to the diplomats.
A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one of the committee's most pressing tasks is trying to hide evidence at nearly 300 locations scattered around the country. The committee is said to be composed mainly of senior officials from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran who report to upper echelons of the government.
Iran has said that it will deny access to some suspicious sites by international inspectors, who returned to the country yesterday. Iran cited a continuing new year's holiday as justification for barring the inspectors.
A Bush administration official said the United States had within the past month received the intelligence report -- prepared by a country other than the United States -- and believes it to be credible. The United States would probably portray any Iranian coverup as a smoking gun of a nuclear weapons program. The United States is likely to use any evidence to prod the Europeans, who have been pursuing an engagement strategy with Tehran, to take a harder line at the June meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in Vienna.
"The report is being viewed seriously because it originates from outside US intelligence sources," said the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It has contributed to a greater sense of frustration, both in the US and within the IAEA."
The Western diplomat who first described the new intelligence report is not American. He also provided a written analysis of the report, though not the actual document.
"The committee is making a thorough and systematic examination of all uranium conversion facilities, centrifuge component manufacturing plants, and other secret installations to locate poor concealment," said the analysis. "It will then order improved concealment measures with a view to making them hermetic before inspections resume."
IAEA inspectors already have discovered elaborate efforts by Iranian authorities to conceal nuclear activities in recent months. At one site near Tehran, workers completely renovated a workshop in an unsuccessful attempt to hide evidence of uranium enrichment, according to an IAEA report. On March 13, the 35 countries on the IAEA board condemned Iran for withholding sensitive information from inspectors. Iran retaliated by suspending inspections of its nuclear facilities, accusing the board of buckling to US pressure.
After negotiations with the IAEA, Iran agreed to allow inspectors to return yesterday. But a diplomat involved in the process said Tehran is only allowing the team to visit locations previously identified as nuclear installations.
The diplomat said Tehran is claiming that a clause in the agreement with the IAEA allows it to block additional inspections during holidays. "They said new year's celebrations are continuing until sometime in April," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"There's nothing in the additional protocol that says you can't inspect on holidays," countered a second US official who is involved with the Iranian nuclear issue. "The holiday is an excuse by Iran to cover up something."
The anticipated delay makes it unlikely that the IAEA will have time to prepare a complete report on Iran's compliance with its disclosure requirements in time for the next scheduled agency board meeting in June, according to people familiar with the process.
The intelligence report, which was prepared before Iran suspended inspections, said that the coverup committee was "formulating a contingency plan: thinking up reasons for delaying the inspectors' return to Iran, if it becomes necessary," according to the written analysis.