Iran of attempting to develop missiles with nuclear warheads - a charge that could derail the European arms-control agreement struck earlier this week. The accusation was made by the outgoing secretary of state, Colin Powell, while on an official visit to Chile for an Asia-Pacific economic summit. The Guardian
Julian Borger in Washington
The Bush administration yesterday accused Iran of attempting to develop missiles with nuclear warheads - a charge that could derail the European arms-control agreement struck earlier this week.
The accusation was made by the outgoing secretary of state, Colin Powell, while on an official visit to Chile for an Asia-Pacific economic summit.
He told reporters: "I've seen some information that would suggest they have been actively working on delivery systems ... you don't have a weapon until you put it in something that can deliver a weapon."
Iran has long been suspected of producing weapons-grade enriched uranium, and Tehran claimed last month to have missiles with a range of 1,250 miles. But this is the first time the US has said that Iran is taking the third crucial step of combining the two by building a nuclear device small and sophisticated enough to use as a warhead.
"I'm talking about information that says they not only have these missiles, but I am aware of information that suggests they were working hard as to how to put the two together," Mr Powell said.
He also appeared to support claims made this week by an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), that Tehran was flouting its European agreement by enriching uranium at a secret military site in the capital. The NCRI is a political front for the People's Mujahideen guerrilla group, which would be outlawed under the European deal.
In return for such a ban, plus economic incentives, Tehran promised in its accord with Britain, France and Germany to abandon uranium enrichment - a process necessary both for nuclear power plants and weapons. Washington has been cautious about the agreement and has argued instead that Iran should be taken to the United Nations Security Council and condemned for violating earlier undertakings to curb its nuclear research.
The UN's international atomic energy agency issued a report this week concluding that "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for", while its director, Mohamed ElBaradei, could not rule out the possibility that Iran was pursuing a clandestine enrichment programme.
But Joseph Cirincione, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "The US scenario was to bring the Iranians to the Security Council. The European-Iranian deal killed any chance of that. This may be part of a counter-attack to derail the European deal without overtly opposing it."