North Korea and Iran are cooperating on Iran's nuclear program, The Daily Telegraph reported Wednesday. According to a new agreement between the two countries, North Korea is reportedly passing over technical information from the underground nuclear test it carried out in October. Citing an anonymous senior European defense official, the paper reported that a team of Iranian scientists was invited recently to North Korea to study the data.
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Western officials fear this new cooperation amongst the so-called "axis of evil" countries could enable Iran to carry out a nuclear test possibly even by the end of the year.
"The Iranians are working closely with the North Koreans to study the results of last year's North Korean nuclear bomb test," the European defense official told the Telegraph.
"We have identified increased activity at all of Iran's nuclear facilities since the turn of the year," he said.
"All the indications are that the Iranians are working hard to prepare for their own underground nuclear test."
On Tuesday, Iran's top nuclear negotiator said that his government would continue to allow the UN nuclear watchdog to inspect its nuclear facilities, adding that Iran's decision to bar 38 inspectors had been misinterpreted.
Ali Larijani said Iran would continue to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency within the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
"Our cooperation with the IAEA is continuing on the basis of the NPT and the (treaty's) safeguards," IRNA quoted Larijani as saying.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Monday that Iran had barred 38 IAEA inspectors from the country but other inspectors would be permitted to visit.
The move provoked fears that Iran was seeking to restrict IAEA access to its facilities.
"This is obviously not a sign of goodwill, nor a sign of willingness to cooperate with the international community," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters Tuesday.
In Vienna, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Monday that the UN agency was discussing the move with the Teheran government. "It should be noted, however, that there are a sufficient number of inspectors designated for Iran, and the IAEA is able to perform its inspection activities," Fleming said.
The official news agency reported that Larijani had a telephone conversation with IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei on Tuesday, but it did not elaborate.
Inspectors from the UN nuclear agency routinely visit Iran's nuclear facilities, including the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, central Iran. The facility is where Iran is upgrading its enrichment program in defiance of the UN Security Council, which has demanded that Iran cease enrichment - a process that produces the material for nuclear reactors or bombs.
Last month, the UN Security Council imposed limited trade sanctions on Iran because of its refusal to halt enrichment. Days later, the country's parliament passed a motion that obliged the government to revise its cooperation with the IAEA, but gave it a free hand to determine the steps to be taken.
The decision to bar 38 inspectors was widely seen as retaliation for the Security Council resolution.
The United States and some of its allies accuse Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying its program is only to produce electricity from nuclear sources.