Satellite photo of Parchin military base in Iran. (Photo credit: Digital Globe - ISIS)
The International Atomic Energy Agency and Western governments acted this week to escalate their accusations that Iran has "sanitized" a site at its Parchin military complex to hide evidence of nuclear weapons work, showing satellite images of physical changes at the site to IAEA member delegations.
The nature of the changes depicted in the images and the circumstances surrounding them suggest, however, that Iran made them to gain leverage in its negotiations with the IAEA rather than to hide past nuclear experiments.
The satellite images displayed to IAEA member delegations last week by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, head of the agency's Safeguards Department, showed a series of changes that have been the subject of leaks to the news media: a stream of water coming out of building at a site at Parchin, the demolition of two small buildings nearby the larger building said by the IAEA to have housed a bomb containment chamber, and earth moved from locations north and south of the site to be dumped further north.
After seeing the pictures, U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Robert Wood declared, "It was clear from some of the images that were presented to us that further sanitization efforts are ongoing at the site."
But the activities shown in those satellite images show activities appear to be aimed at prompting the IAEA, the United States and Israel to give greater urgency and importance to a request for an IAEA inspection visit to Parchin in the context of negotiations between Iran and the IAEA. The latest round in those negotiations, on a framework for Iran's cooperation with the IAEA in clearing up allegations of Iranian covert nuclear weapons work, failed to reach agreement on Friday.
Greg Thielmann, former director of Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said in an interview with IPS that he didn't know whether the changes shown in satellite images were part of a conscious Iranian negotiating strategy. But Thielmann, now a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, said the effect of the changes is to "increase the interest of the IAEA in an inspection at Parchin as soon as possible and to give Iran more leverage in the negotiations."
Nuclear scientist Dr. Behrad Nakhai, who has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and has closely followed the Iranian nuclear program, suggested that Iran's overt moves on the ground in Parchin were a way of ensuring that "the IAEA will be enticed to give more value to an inspection of Parchin."
Muhammad Sahimi, who tracks news coverage and comments on Iran's nuclear program for the PBS Frontline website "Tehran Bureau," agrees that Iranians have made physical changes at Parchin "so that when they allow the IAEA in, it will be at a higher price."
Access to Parchin has been recognized implicitly by both sides as Iran's primary leverage in those negotiations. The IAEA has insisted in the past that a Parchin visit must come before reaching the broader agreement on Iran's cooperation, while Iran has refused to permit a visit to the site until after the agreement is completed.
The primary issue in the wider negotiations has been whether the IAEA inquiry would end if and when Iran answered all the questions that have been raised by the IAEA or whether the agency could go back to issues as often and whenever it wishes.
The charge that Iran is "sanitizing" the site assumes that Iran believes that the activities depicted would actually eliminate traces of radioactivity left by past testing at the site. The IAEA's November 2011 report said a bomb containment chamber at the site in Parchin was used for "hydrodynamic tests," which utilize natural or depleted uranium as a substitute for fissile materials.
David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), suggested in a May 11 commentary on the organization's website that if Iran were to grind down the surfaces inside the building, collect the dust, wash, repair and repaint the building, and remove dirt around the building, it "could be effective in defeating environmental sampling." But nuclear experts have contradicted that statement. [For more on Albright, see Consortiumnews.com's "An Iraq-WMD Replay on Iran."]
Pierre Goldschmidt, IAEA deputy director general for safeguards from 1999 to 2005, responding to an e-mail query from IPS, said, "Of course there would be no way to remove the traces of a nuclear test."
Robert Kelley, who has also managed the U.S. Department of Energy's Remote Sensing Laboratory, which specializes in high-tech detection of nuclear activities, and was twice head of the IAEA's Iraq inspection group, has pointed out that Syria was sent to the U.N. Security Council over a site that had been bulldozed a year earlier, because of the discovery of tiny microscopic particles of radioactive material found at the site. Nuclear scientist Nakhi told IPS, "It's virtually impossible to clean up radiation from a nuclear test completely."
Referring to the charges of "sanitization" of evidence of nuclear device testing at the Parchin site, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Iran's lead nuclear negotiator with the European states in 2005, told IPS, "Iranians know very well they couldn't eliminate traces of such activities even after 10 years." Mousavian, now a visiting scholar at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, added, "I personally cannot imagine there were such activities (at Parchin)."