AT the northern end of Tehran's Amirabad Avenue lies the heavily guarded compound of Iran's Organization for Atomic Energy. A controversy over what happens behind its fences and walls has added to the already existing tension between Washington and Tehran.
Last December a draft Central Intelligence Agency report concluded that Iran was making progress on a nuclear arms program and could develop a nuclear weapon by the year 2000. Iran vehemently denied the allegations; it insists its nuclear research program is peaceful.
The dispute is a vital concern for Iranian officials, who want to avoid any damaging international misunderstandings. They say the industry is necessary to boost much-needed electrical capacity, and argue that, as a matter of sovereignty, Iran has the right to have a national nuclear industry.
"Our nuclear program is peaceful," says Reza Amrollahi, head of Iran's Organization for Atomic Energy, speaking in his office inside the Amirabad compound.
"My country has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has repeatedly expressed its willingness to honor it," he says. "Also, we are an active member of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]."
Iran's nuclear program was initiated in the 1960s by the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was at that time the staunchest ally of the West in the Persian Gulf region.
This explains why most senior Iranian nuclear scientists were trained in the United States. The small research nuclear reactor in the Amirabad compound was provided by a US company, with the blessing of both the State Department and the Department of Commerce. Peaceful intentions
Mr. Amrollahi reports directly to President Hashemi Rafsanjani. A bearded, middle-aged man, he studied nuclear physics at the University of Texas. He was later trained at the Belgian nuclear research center in Mol.
When asked about allegations by the CIA and Israeli intelligence sources that Iran is engaged in research to build a nuclear bomb, Amrollahi answered: "The Americans are trying to fool the world. Those accusations are nonsense. My question is: Which agency in this world is in charge of inspecting nuclear installations - the CIA or the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Organization?
"If the US government has the evidence that Iran is involved in research in the field of nuclear weapons, why doesn't it pass its documents to the Vienna agency whose representatives are always welcome in Iran?" he asks.
In February 1992 experts from the IAEA toured Iran's nuclear sites at Amrollahi's invitation. At the end of this seven-day "familiarization" visit Jon Jennekens, IAEA deputy director, told a press conference:
"We visited without any restriction everything we had asked to see," he says. "All nuclear activities in Iran are solely for peaceful purpose."
Mr. Pierre Villaros, a French engineer on the IAEA team, went as far as "deploring that Iran is under a de facto embargo on nuclear equipments."
Last September the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as some Israeli journalists, contended that the IAEA delegation had been misled by the Iranians and never toured any of the most sensitive Iran's six research laboratories.
"We have nothing to hide," Amrollahi responds. "Do you think that the IAEA experts are stupid enough to be led astray?"
David Kyd, the spokesman for the IAEA, contacted in Vienna, concurs. "None of our member states ever suggested that we were taken to a wrong location."
Amrollahi says that the primary task of his organization is to build nuclear power plants to address Iran's deficit in electricity. Iran has endured an endemic power shortage for decades.
Asked why his country, which has huge oil and gas reserves, insists on building nuclear reactors, Amrollahi says that Iran's present nuclear program is only a downgraded version of that elaborated by the imperial regime in collaboration with the US.
"What we do want," Amrollahi says, "is to complete two units of 1,200 megawatts each on the site of the southern city of Bushehr. Work on those units began under the imperial regime. We have already paid the Germans for those two reactors but they have told us they are under US pressure not to finish the job." Research activities
But Amrollahi concedes that his organization is involved in activities other than those related to the production of electricity. He says researchers at a laboratory near the city of Karaj are involved in a nuclear program aimed at artificially producing radioisotopes, which are generally used in biological research.
He also says his country intends to build a cyclotron - a machine that accelerates and collides sub-atomic particles to initiate nuclear transformations - in Karaj. Western scientists say a cyclotron does not have the capability of producing enriched uranium, which is needed for the fabrication of nuclear weapons.
Amrollahi also says his organization has an important training center in the central city of Isfahan that includes a research reactor.
Last November the US press reported that the State Department had succeeded in halting sales of nuclear supplies to Iran by Argentina and China.
Amrollahi counters these reports, saying that the two deals are still being discussed. He says that his organization presently is buying low-grade uranium from Argentina.
He also says Iran has signed a contract with China for the purchase of a research nuclear reactor.
The spokesperson for the IAEA in Vienna confirmed that Iran will definitely receive delivery this year of a cargo of 20 percent enriched uranium from Argentina. The agency has decided to double its annual routine visits to Iran from two to four.