WASHINGTON, May 26 (UPI) -- An Iranian opposition group scheduled a news conference for Tuesday to release new details on Teheran's alleged nuclear weapons research program at a time when talk of instituting a regime change in Iran has reportedly been picking up steam.
Just a day after the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee broached the idea of applying pressure to Iran over its nuclear ambitions, the National Council of Resistance of Iran announced that it would "unveil new information" about two alleged secret research sites.
"The Resistance's representatives will also make public the clerical regime's schemes and methods to conceal its nuclear projects from international observers and the International Atomic Energy Agency," the exile group said in announcing the Washington new conference.
The prospect of Iran joining the world nuclear club comes as growing concerns in Washington over the weapons capacity of the three-nation "Axis of Evil" reached a crescendo with the spring invasion of Iraq.
At the same time, the United States has been verbally sparing with another axis member, North Korea, over its revitalized nuclear program; and now the Bush administration is taking an apparently harder line with the third member, Iran, over the harboring of al Qaeda fugitives and its questionable nuclear power program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is in the midst of an inspection mission to determine if the Iranian program is indeed limited to generating electricity, or if it has more sinister goals.
"We are not commenting at all on the situation in Iran because we are in the midst of a very sensitive inspection," IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told The New York Times. "We are going there. We are taking samples and we are doing analyses."
Officials in Washington, however, have reportedly grown more concerned in recent weeks about the Iranian nuclear program.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and other lawmakers involved in intelligence oversight appeared on the Sunday talk shows in the wake of a Washington Post report that said the administration was hardening its attitudes toward Iran because of its nuclear program and its alleged ties to al Qaeda operatives that were flushed out of Afghanistan post the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Lugar said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the United States, the United Nations and Iran's neighbor, Russia, should consider ramping up the pressure on Teheran to end any weapons research.
"They (Russia) have really not been serious about doing that and that is serious business," Lugar said.
Energy officials from Iran and Russia rebuffed the growing alarm in Washington and stated Monday that their joint nuclear power plant project at Bushehr was peaceful and would continue despite U.S. protests.
"The Russian side does not see any grounds to revise its obligations with regard to the construction of the first power unit at the nuclear power plant in Bushehr," Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev told the Itar-Tass news service. "We will continue to fulfill our obligations, despite the fact that our positions on this issue differ from those of official Washington."
Lugar told CBS that he favored going through with the inspections and other diplomatic steps before resorting to the kind of covert destabilization that The Post said some administration hard-liners favor. He cautioned, however, that the United States would not shy away from a clash with Iran if diplomacy failed.
"There always must be a perception on the part of each of these countries that we have the military authority to achieve whatever we want to do," Lugar said bluntly. "I think that has to be out there. Our diplomacy really is based largely on a correct perception that (Iran's) government could be overturned."
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been involved in inspections at various Iranian sites to determine if Iran's nuclear programs are aimed at something bigger than its publicly stated goal of producing fuel for civilian power plants.
A leader of the NCRI told The New York Times Monday that opposition guerrillas inside Iran had learned that the Teheran government had established a pair of small satellite laboratories in central Iran, about 25 miles outside of Teheran, near the larger nuclear facility at Natanz. The satellite labs allegedly will be equipped to process uranium and would act as back-up processing plants in the event of a preemptive air strike on Natanz.
"These sites will allow the mullahs to continue their uranium weapons production," Ali Safavi, an NCRI official, told the newspaper.
The NCRI last summer alleged that Natanz and another site at Arak were being used for covert weapons research overseen by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
"I think the Bush administration ought to take it seriously," Gary Milhollin, director of The Wisconsin Project, an arms control research group, told The Times. "They ought to ask the IAEA to ask Iran for either a denial or a confirmation, and if the Iranians confirm it, then the IAEA ought to ask to be allowed to see both (new) sites."
(Reported by Hil Anderson)