TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's top nuclear official said yesterday that his country intended to build about 10 nuclear power plants in the next two decades but denied that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
The official, Reza Amrollahi, also said that last year he signed a formal contract with China for two nuclear power reactors and that Chinese experts had completed a feasibility study and had begun to draw up blueprints and engineering reports for a site in southern Iran.
Iran has already made a "down payment" for the project, which will cost $800 million to $900 million and involve training by Chinese experts, said Mr. Amrollahi, director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
The United States has led a global campaign to prevent Iran from receiving any nuclear technology because of its suspected weapons program. Mr. Amrollahi's statements suggest that the agreement with China is much further along than was thought and that Iran is planning a vast, long-range nuclear energy program.
They seem certain to strengthen the conviction within the Clinton administration and in Congress that Iran is determined to become a nuclear power.
In addition to its oil reserves, Iran has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the world, and natural gas is much cheaper to develop than nuclear energy.
That makes U.S. officials suspicious that Iran wants nuclear power as part of a weapons program.
In a clear attempt to answer charges that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, Mr. Amrollahi made his remarks in a 2 1/2 -hour interview at his agency's six-story headquarters in central Tehran.
"We have a plan to take 20 years to get 20 percent of our energy from nuclear," Mr. Amrollahi said.
Asked whether that could mean about 10 reactors, he said, "Something like that." That number is higher than the several reactors Iran was previously known to be planning.
Mr. Amrollahi denied reports that Iran had negotiated -- or even discussed -- a plan to buy a gas centrifuge from Russia that could have rapidly enriched uranium to bomb-grade quality. "This was a diplomatically made cake," he said of reports from Washington about the existence of a separate, albeit tentative agreement with Russia.
Russia has agreed to supply the enriched uranium needed to operate the plant it will finish, he said. Asked whether Iran was pursuing a program to enrich uranium, he said, "Not now," but added quickly: "No. Not forever. Not. No. Not at all."
Asked why Iran simply doesn't use natural gas for fuel, Mr. Amrollahi said, "Natural gas is one of the best fuels, and many countries at the moment need it. So we think it is better to sell it."
Like many of Iran's nuclear specialists, Mr. Amrollahi has been educated and trained in the West. He holds a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas and a doctorate in physics from the University of Paris.
He has headed Iran's nuclear program for 15 years.
The United States and Germany have amassed substantial evidence that Iran is secretly buying components and technology from abroad that they claim are not necessary for nuclear energy development or research and can be useful only in a determined weapons program.
U.S. and German intelligence officials believe that Mr. Amrollahi controls only part of Iran's nuclear program and that Iran has created a parallel program through the military that is largely responsible for purchases of nuclear-related items.
According to them, the Defense Ministry Organization uses front organizations such as Sharif University of Technology in Tehran to help buy nuclear-related equipment.
On the basis of reports by Germany's foreign intelligence agency in 1992 and 1993 that Sharif was involved in secret nuclear activities, Germany began to reject all requests for equipment by the university.
Early last year, the German agency said the university's physics research center was buying technology that could be used in weapons, including nuclear-related materials.
Mr. Amrollahi strongly denied the claim that he was not fully in charge.
"Believe it, we don't have any other institutions or departments that pay attention to nuclear issues."
Mr. Amrollahi also denied reports that Iran secretly has been buying nuclear technology and equipment from abroad, noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for monitoring nuclear programs around the world, turned up nothing suspicious during a visit to Sharif University.
But the nuclear chief was unfamiliar with intelligence reports about Iran's nuclear-related overtures abroad and asked for copies of news clippings describing the details.
Asked, for example, about a report that Iran tried unsuccessfully to buy cylinders of fluorine for Sharif University in 1991, Mr. Amrollahi said, "Wrong. I deny it totally."
Asked about a report that Sharif approached the German firm Thyssen in 1991 for specialized magnets, he replied, "No, we never did."
Asked about a seizure by Italian authorities of high-technology ultrasonic equipment that could be used in nuclear reactor testing at an Italian port last January, he replied, "Believe it, that's wrong, totally."