REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND CAIRO -– An explosion Saturday at a missile base for Iran’s elite Republican Guard killed at least 17 soldiers and shook buildings west of Tehran, according to authorities, who downplayed any hint of international sabotage aimed at Iran’s nuclear program.
The soldiers were transporting ammunition at a base near Bidgeneh village, about 30 miles outside the capital, when an "explosion occurred as a result of an accident," Guard spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif said.
Officials had earlier reported that 27 people had been killed in the explosion.
The base is home to the Fifth Raad Missile Brigade, which oversees Iran’s medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile. One of those killed in the explosion was Hasan Tehrani Moqaddam, a top Republican Guard commander involved in the research of long-range missiles.
Sharif said the blast was not linked to a nuclear test or the transport of missiles.
Parviz Sorouri, a member of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, told a government website: "No sabotage was involved in this incident. It has nothing to do with politics."
The explosion came days after the United Nations' nuclear regulatory agency released a report suggesting that Iran was ignoring international pressure and secretly trying to build nuclear weapons. The report said Iran’s activities raise "serious concerns" about "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program.
Israel has been threatening a possible military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. Tehran has repeatedly insisted that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes.
There have been a number of deadly blasts in recent years at industrial sites and military bases in Iran, including a gas leak explosion in May when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was visiting the Abadan oil refinery. A blast at a Republican Guard arms depot in the city of Khorramabad killed 18 soldiers in October 2010, according to media reports.
Saturday’s explosion, which injured 16 soldiers, sent a column of smoke into the air and rattled windows in Tehran’s suburbs, according to media reports. Some Iranians thought an earthquake or a gas explosion had happened. The Fars news agency said the blast occurred about 1:30 p.m. local time.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo
Photo: Smoke rises from an explosion at a Revolutionary Guard ammunition depot west of Tehran that killed Iranian soldiers on Saturday. Credit: Associated Press