Reuters: PARIS, Sept 10 - Iran is using numerous front companies to buy materials for its secret nuclear weapons programme, a group of Iranian exiles that has reported accurately about Tehran's atomic programme said on Friday. Reuters

By Kerstin Gehmlich

PARIS - Iran is using numerous front companies to buy materials for its secret nuclear weapons programme, a group of Iranian exiles that has reported accurately about Tehran's atomic programme said on Friday.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group that Washington listed as a terrorist organisation last year, said Tehran uses front firms to "portray its nuclear activities as benign work by the private sector".

The United States, like the NCRI, accuses Iran of developing atomic weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy programme. Oil-rich Iran denies the charge and insists it wants nuclear power only to generate electricity.

The NCRI listed four such front companies: Rah-e Kar New Industry company, Pishgam Development Industrial Energy, Iran Pars Terash Company and Rah-e Kar-e Sanayea Novin.

The United Nations said in its last report on nuclear inspections in Iran that it had found traces of enriched uranium at Pars Terash and was investigating their source.

The NCRI said that the last company on the list, Rah-e Kar-e, had bought deuterium -- a substance with many civilian uses but which can be combined with tritium and used in atomic weapons -- from Russia. This appeared to back up an intelligence report obtained by Reuters in Vienna at the end of July.

Although Iran is capable of making its own deuterium, the intelligence report said Iranian scientists had been unable to produce deuterium-tritium gas and had, "due to pressures by the Iranian leadership to accelerate the weapons production program, decided to purchase (deuterium gas) abroad" in Russia.

The intelligence report said Iran was conducting experiments to create deuterium-tritium gas with the help of Russian scientists inside Iran. The gas can be used to initiate a chain reaction in a nuclear explosion.

The NCRI statement said some of the deuterium had been sent to the Centre for Nuclear Research at Esfahan, and the rest went to the heavy water plant at Arak. Deuterium is most often used in civilian heavy water facilities.

The NCRI, which is the political wing of the People's Mujahideen Organisation (MKO), established its credibility as a nuclear whistleblower by reporting in August 2002 that Tehran was hiding a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This sparked a full-scale IAEA probe, which has uncovered plants at both places and more hidden nuclear activities in Iran, but no "smoking gun" to confirm the accuracy of the U.S. and NCRI claims.

The statement also named what it described as a previously undisclosed facility for refining raw uranium into yellowcake at Bandar Abbas, which it says is Iran's second largest such plant.

IAEA officials were not immediately available for comment.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in Vienna)