Iran builds a secret underground complex as nuclear tensions rise
By Philip Sherwell in Washington
Iran's leaders have built a secret underground emergency command centre in Teheran as they prepare for a confrontation with the West over their illicit nuclear programme, the Sunday Telegraph has been told.
The complex of rooms and offices beneath the Abbas Abad district in the north of the capital is designed to serve as a bolthole and headquarters for the country's rulers as military tensions mount.
The recently completed command centre is connected by tunnels to other government compounds near the Mossala prayer ground, one of the city's most important religious sites.
Offices of the state security forces, the energy department and the Organisation of Islamic Culture and Communications are all located in the same area.
The construction of the complex is part of the regime's plan to move more of its operations beneath ground. The Revolutionary Guard has overseen the development of subterranean chambers and tunnels - some more than half a mile long and an estimated 35ft high and wide - at sites across the country for research and development work on nuclear and rocket programmes.
The opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) learnt about the complex from its contacts within the regime. The same network revealed in 2002 that Iran had been operating a secret nuclear programme for 18 years.
The underground strategy is partly designed to hide activities from satellite view and international inspections but also reflects a growing belief in Teheran that its showdown with the international community could end in air strikes by America or Israel. "Iran's leaders are clearly preparing for a confrontation by going underground," said Alireza Jafarzadeh, the NCRI official who made the 2002 announcement.
America and Europe believe that Iran is secretly trying to acquire an atomic bomb, although the regime insists that its nuclear programme is for civilian energy purposes.
As the United Nations Security Council prepares to discuss Iran's nuclear operations this week, Teheran has been stepping up plans for confrontation. Its chief delegate on nuclear talks last week threatened that Iran would inflict "harm and pain" on America if censured by the Security Council.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline president who has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map", also said that the West would "suffer" if it tried to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. As the war of words intensified, President George W Bush said that Teheran represents a "grave national security concern" for America.
In Iraq, which Mr Ahmadinejad hopes will develop into a fellow Shia Islamic state, Iran is already using its proxy militia to attack British and American forces, often with Iranian-made bombs and weapons. As tensions grow, Teheran could order Hizbollah - the Lebanese-based terror faction that it created and arms - to attack targets in Israel.
The regime is also reviewing its contingency plans to attack tankers and American naval forces in the Persian Gulf and to mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 15 million barrels of oil (about 20 per cent of world production) passes each day. Any action in the Gulf would send oil prices soaring - a weapon that Iran has often threatened to wield.
The Pentagon's strategic planning is focused on the danger that Iran might try to mine the strait and deploy explosive-packed suicide boats against its warships. In May, American vessels in the Gulf will take part in the Arabian Gauntlet training exercise that deals with clearing mines from the strait, which has a navigable channel just two miles wide.
The naval wing of the Revolutionary Guard has in recent years practised "swarming" raids, using its flotilla of small rapid-attack boats to simulate assaults on commercial vessels and United States warships, according to Ken Timmerman, an American expert on Iran.
The Pentagon is particularly sensitive to the dangers of such attacks after al-Qaeda hit the USS Cole off the Yemen with a suicide boat in 2000, killing 17 American sailors. Last month the White House listed two foiled al-Qaeda plots to attack ships in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
US intelligence believes that if Iranian nuclear facilities were attacked by either America or Israel, then Teheran would respond by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz with naval forces, mines and anti-ship cruise missiles.
"When these systems become fully operational, they will significantly enhance Iran's defensive capabilities and ability to deny access to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz," Michael Maples, the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency testified before the Senate armed services committee last month.
A senior American intelligence officer said that the US navy would be able to reopen the strait but that it would be militarily costly. Hamid Reza Zakeri, a former Iranian intelligence officer, recently told Mr Timmerman that the Iranian navy's Strategic Studies Centre has produced an updated battle plan for the strait.
Its most devastating options would be to use its long-range Shahab-3 missiles to attack Israeli or American bases in the region or to deploy suicide bombers in Western cities under its strategy of "asymmetric" response.
"The price to the West for standing up to Iran is clear," Gen Moshe Ya'alon, the former Israeli defence chief said last month in Washington. "It includes terror attacks, economic hardship… and consequences resulting from fluctuations in Iranian oil production. Indeed, the regime believes that the West - including Israel - is afraid to deal with it."