TEHRAN, Iran – Iran confirmed Sunday that it initially developed its nuclear program in secret, going to the black market for material, and blaming its discretion on the U.S. sanctions and European restrictions that denied Iran (search) access to advanced civilian nuclear technology.
Iran now openly admits that it has already achieved proficiency in the full range of activities involved in enriching uranium — a technology that can be used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors or an atomic bomb.
Washington has accused Tehran (search) of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to build a nuclear bomb. Iran denies this, saying its nuclear program is merely geared toward generating electricity.
"True. There was secrecy," former president Hashemi Rafsanjani (search) said Sunday. "But secrecy was necessary to buy equipment for a peaceful nuclear program."
"If sanctions had not been imposed on us, we would have declared everything publicly, but we had problems buying metal. Nobody sold us anything in the market," he said.
Rafsanjani was speaking at the closing session of a two-day international conference on nuclear technology in Tehran, attended by more than 50 international nuclear scientists.
President from 1989-97, Rafsanjani also chairs the Expediency Council, a powerful body that arbitrates between the parliament and another council that vets legislation. He is believed to have a great influence over Iran's nuclear program.
Since last year Iran has publicly acknowledged that it once bought nuclear equipment from middlemen in south Asia, lending credence to reports that Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, was one of the suppliers.
Rafsanjani said Iran resorted to the black market because was political "injustice" by the U.S. and Europe.
He said Washington and the Europeans had approved the building of 20 nuclear power plants in Iran and provide advanced nuclear technology when Tehran was under the pro-Western shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s. But they reversed their positions following the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the Shah and brought the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.
"If the Shah is in Iran, you would give him nuclear technology, but if Imam (Khomeini) is in Iran, you can't do that ... the history of nuclear energy in Iran is a lesson in contradictions in Western policy towards Iran," he said.
But Rafsanjani said Iran has been very transparent since 2002 when aspects of its nuclear activities were revealed and that it has cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to dispel suspicions that it was seeking nuclear weapons.
He said Iran would never agree to a permanent halt on enriching uranium, a technology he says Tehran is entitled to under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Iran suspended its uranium enrichment activities last year to create confidence and avoid U.N. Security Council sanctions. But Tehran says maintaining the voluntary freeze depends on progress in ongoing talks with Britain, Germany and France, who are negotiating on behalf of the European Union.
"Definitely we can't stop our nuclear program and won't stop it. You can't take technology away from a country already possessing it," Rafsanjani said.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy committee of the Iranian parliament, told the conference that Parliament would not approve additional protocol to the NPT if the Europeans insist Iran turn its temporary suspension of uranium enrichment-related activities into a permanent freeze.
Under the additional protocol, Iran will have to allow visits by IAEA inspectors to its nuclear facilities at short notice.
Iran has agreed, but the protocol has to be approved by parliament before it becomes law.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, told the conference that European demands for a permanent freeze went against accords already signed by Iran and the three key European nations.
"Insisting on cessation kills the process of negotiations," he said.