JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel distanced itself on Monday from efforts by exiled Iranian organisation MEK, which has helped expose Tehran's controversial nuclear programme, to be removed from the U.S. terrorism blacklist.
The Mujahedin-e-Khalq's well-funded outreach to the Obama administration has won bipartisan support in Washington at a time of widespread speculation that Israel and Western allies are stepping up sabotage in Iran, possibly using local dissidents.
Asked during a briefing for foreign reporters whether Israel backed the MEK's campaign, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said: "No. We don't consider it an asset, and we are not interfering in the internal affairs of Iran."
Washington branded the MEK a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in 1997, when the Clinton administration hoped the move would help open a dialogue with Tehran, which reviles the banned group for siding with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.
The MEK, which is also known as the People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) and the Mujahideen Khalq Organisation (MKO), renounced violence in 2001.
A year later, it gave the first detailed public account of Iran's secretive nuclear projects in Natanz and Arak. Britain and the European Union took the MEK off their terrorism blacklists in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
In the United States, a court last year ordered the State Department to review the MEK's designation. Calls to hasten the delisting process grew after Iraqi troops raided the MEK base northeast of Baghdad, near the Iranian border, in an April 8 operation that a U.N. official said left at least 34 dead.
Israel, which is widely reputed to have the region's only atomic arsenal, sees the makings of a mortal threat in the Islamic republic's uranium enrichment and ballistic missile development, though Tehran denies having hostile designs.
Yaalon said that, "one way or another," Iran must be denied the means of making a nuclear bomb, a scenario he described as a "nightmare." But he declined to be drawn on whether this might include pre-emptive military or covert attacks by Israel.
Asked about a November 28 blast heard near Isfahan, where Iran has a uranium processing plant, Yaalon said only: "We know that there were explosions, and there was smoke."
At the time, the deputy governor of Isfahan province denied there had been a big explosion.
Citing satellite photographs, the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security said on Friday it found no evidence of blast damage at the nuclear facility but there were signs of construction at an site 400 metres (yards) away that was originally a salt mine and, recently, a underground store.
Writing by Dan Williams