TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A Revolutionary Guard commander killed in an explosion at an ammunition depot west of Tehran was a key figure in Iran's missile program, the elite military force said in a statement Sunday.
Gen. Hasan Moghaddam was killed together with 16 other Guard members Saturday at a military site outside Bidganeh village, 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Tehran. The Guard said the accidental explosion occurred while military personnel were transporting munitions.
The Guard praised Moghaddam, saying the military force will not forget his "effective role in the development of the country's defense ... and his efforts in launching and organizing the Guard's artillery and missile units," the semiofficial Fars news agency quoted the statement as saying Sunday.
The Revolutionary Guard is a key Iranian military force closely tied to the country's powerful clerics.
Moghaddam headed a "self-sufficiency" unit of the Guard's armaments section.
Iranian officials did not explain why Moghaddam was at the site at the time of the explosion.
Saeed Qasemi, a Guard commander, said Iran owes its missile program to Moghaddam.
"A major part of (our) progress in the field of missile capability and artillery was due to round-the-clock efforts by martyr Moghaddam," Qasemi told the conservative news website rajanews.com.
Another Guard commander, Gen. Mostafa Izadi, called Moghaddam a "founder of the Guard's surface-to-surface missile systems."
An exiled Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK, has claimed that the blast hit a missile base run by the Revolutionary guard rather than an ammunition depot.
Lawmaker Parviz Soroori was sure the blast was accidental.
"No sabotage was involved in this incident. It has nothing to do with politics," Soroori was quoted as saying by the parliament's website, icana.ir.
Qasemi said Moghaddam was one of a few Guard commanders favored by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"The exalted leader had a special interest in him," he said.
Iran's arsenal boasts missiles with a range of about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) that were designed for Israel and U.S. targets. The missile capability, along with Iran's nuclear program, are among the reasons why Israel considers Iran its most dangerous enemy.
The Revolutionary Guard, Iran's most powerful military force, is in charge of Iran's missile program.
Iran's chief Guard commander, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, and other top officials visited Moghaddam's family Sunday to offer condolences. Moghaddam's body will be buried Monday.