The Marivan Mystery
by Gareth Porter
When Iran offered last month to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the Marivan region near the border with Iraq, the IAEA might have been expected to respond with alacrity to the opportunity.
The IAEA had been complaining for months that Iran had not provided the information and access required to “clarify” allegations of nuclear weapons-related experiments. But the immediate IAEA response to the Iranian offer, as well as the previous history of the Marivan issue, suggest that the nuclear agency is less than eager to take advantage of it. That reason appears to be because the Agency’s source for the alleged experiments failed to identify the site where the alleged experiments were supposed to have been conducted.
The Agency’s November 2011 report asserted that “information” provided by a “Member State” indicated that Iran had carried out “large scale high explosive experiments” in “the region of Marivan” using a technique for initiating an explosive charge found in “some known nuclear explosive devices.”
In a significant development in the IAEA-Iran process for resolving the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) issue however, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, told the Board of Governors during its quarterly conference November 21 that Iran was ready to give the IAEA “one managed access” to the western Marivan region to “prove” that the allegations of nuclear weapons experiments were “wrong and baseless.” He said such alleged experiments “could easily be traced if the exact site would be visited.”
The Iranian diplomat said the unnamed Member State that had made the charge—which he said was either the United States or Israel—“should specify the site’s exact location. Otherwise it should confess that it has misled the IAEA with false information.” Najafi added, “In fact, there is no such location at all.”
The response from Gill Tudor, the spokesperson for IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, was non-committal. “The situation regarding a visit to the Marivan region is not as simple as that conveyed by Iran. The Agency will discuss the offer with Iran,” she said.
Two weeks after the Iranian offer, the IAEA was still silent on whether it has contacted Iran to discuss the offer. “The topic is still under consideration,” said Serge Gas, the IAEA Director of Communications, in response to this writer’s query December 3 about any follow-up with the statement.
A source close to the Agency told me, however, that the issue of a visit to Marivan “has gone to sleep for the moment.”
The Iranian mission to the IAEA, meanwhile, said it had nothing to add to Ambassador Najafi’s initial offer.
The IAEA’s apparent hesitancy about an inspection visit to Marivan is remarkable in light of Amano’s criticism of Iran for allegedly failing to provide information on suspect sites. Amano declared in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington Oct. 31 that Iran still had not provided information on the issues that Iran had agreed to address last summer, one of which was the alleged high explosives experiments.
But instead of pursuing a possible inspection of the site of the alleged Marivan experiment, Amano has focused solely on gaining access to the site at Iran’s Parchin military base where, according to the 2011 IAEA report, Iran had constructed a large explosives containment vessel in 2000 for hydrodynamic testing of nuclear weapons designs.
That report did not claim that the alleged cylinder at Parchin had actually been used for any nuclear weapons-related experiment, however. It asserted only that it was “suitable” for carrying out the same kind of experiment on a multipoint initiation system for a bomb that it said had been already performed in Marivan.
Former IAEA nuclear weapons expert Robert Kelley, who had twice headed the Agency’s Iraq Action Team, has argued that an inspection of the alleged Marivan high explosives experiments should thus take the priority. In February 2012, Kelley, a former director of the US Department of Energy Remote Sensing Laboratory in Nevada, told Jonathan Tirone of Bloomberg News, “The Agency needs to put Marivan first, because it is the sleeping dog in the last report.”
The day after Kelley was quoted on Marivan, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Ambassador Ali Asgar Soltanieh, told a visiting IAEA delegation, which had requested the day before to visit Parchin during its two-day stay, that it could carry out an inspection visit to Marivan instead. But the IAEA delegation rejected the offer, claiming that it had not been given enough lead-time to prepare for such a trip, according to Soltanieh.
The IAEA had never brought up Marivan publicly again until Najafi’s offer at the Board of Governors meeting. The only plausible reason for its present apparent reluctance to pursue such a visit is that the Member State that provided the intelligence on the alleged experiments failed to identify a specific site in the Marivan region.
Marivan is one of the “counties” of Iran’s Kurdistan province. It includes three districts with three cities and 151 populated villages with a total population of about 170,000 people.
The IAEA certainly had access to satellite images for the entire Marivan region, and would have searched through those images for any site that looked like it could be the location of the purported high explosives experiment. Apparently, it did not find a specific location that seemed plausible.
The allegation about the Marivan experiment isn’t the only one that lacked a specific location. The intelligence on the alleged explosives cylinder “suitable” for conducting the same type of experiment was also not connected to a specific site at the sprawling Parchin facility at the time that its alleged existence was first reported to the IAEA.
The IAEA revealed in its August 2012 report that the location of the Parchin site “was only identified in March 2011.” IAEA reports are carefully worded, and any intelligence information is always attributed to one or more unidentified Member States. The use of passive voice—which allowed the Agency to avoid the question of who did finally identify the location—strongly implies that the identification of the site at Parchin was not the result of new intelligence information provided by the original or some other, but rather resulted from the IAEA’s own searching through satellite images for a site with physical characteristics considered consistent with the intelligence the Agency had obtained. So the Parchin site is likely merely the IAEA’s best guess as to the location of the alleged object, the very existence of which is very much in question, as Kelley has argued on this website.
The fact that the unnamed Member State or States that provided the intelligence claims apparently failed to specify locations for either of the two major alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related activities adds yet another reason to question the reliability of the intelligence used by the IAEA to construct what Amano calls the “case” that Iran carried out covert nuclear weapons research. But there are other compelling reasons to question those and other such intelligence claims. Kelley has discussed some of those reasons in multiple articles. Others are discussed in my own book-length study on the misinformation and disinformation surrounding the Iran nuclear issue.
Despite the problematic nature of the intelligence currently at the center of the PMD issue, the treatment of the issue in American news media continues to focus overwhelmingly on Iran’s refusal to allow the IAEA to inspect the site that has now been identified at Parchin. The implication has been that Iran is hiding something. At the same time, one would be hard-pressed to find US coverage of Iran’s latest offer.
There are other explanations for Iran’s reluctance to permit the IAEA to inspect Parchin, however. On one hand, Iran would not want to set a precedent for allowing inspections of its military sites on the basis of intelligence that it argues is not supported by credible evidence when hostile powers could exploit that opening to gather military intelligence. On the other hand, it can’t be expected to give away its ultimate negotiating chip to the IAEA without a concession of comparable value in return.
Photo: Resident Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran Reza Najaf photographed with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in Vienna, Austria, 26 September 2013. Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA