by Robert Kelley
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has expressed a desire to visit a building at the Parchin Ammunition Plant near Tehran. The IAEA believes that experiments related to nuclear weapons may have taken place there early in the 2000s. The building is an unremarkable rectangular industrial building that would attract no interest whatsoever except that there are rumors about its past uses. It has a low-security signature with low fences next to the building and public-access areas a few hundred meters away across a highway and small river. The only noteworthy satellite imagery signature is a thick concrete shield wall at one end of the building. There also three or four small outbuildings. The IAEA suspects (Paragraph 49 in the Annex) that the main building either hides or has hidden a massive steel chamber that could be used to contain high-explosive detonations.
Recent AP reporting suggests that the IAEA may get access to the building after four years of a standoff with Iran over the agency’s inspection request. There has been a social media outcry about whether IAEA is going to be able to take swipe samples inside the building. That is an interesting question, but it is clearly a second priority. The first priority is to observe what is and is not inside the building. From the moment the inspectors enter the building, or receive Iranian images of the interior, they need to be observing actively and documenting what they see. Sampling is clearly a second priority, depending on what the inspectors see.
The most interesting question is whether there is a massive container surrounded by a concrete reinforcement. If it is there, it needs to be documented in every way: size, instrumentation ports, piping, water flushing systems, change rooms, decontamination showers, waste tanks, electronic diagnostics, and so on. If there is no cylinder, is there any indication that something that massive was there previously and has been completely removed. If so, what is the evidence of removal? Is there an explosion chamber of lesser size? That is a possibility given the undocumented rumors about the building and the tendency of intelligence sources to exaggerate.
If there are no chambers, large or small, what is there? Is there evidence that the building has been largely remodeled inside? Or are the fittings and equipment old, established, and possibly from the earliest usage around the year 2000 when the IAEA says it was installed? Clearly, some critics believe that there is, or was, a chamber and that Iran has carried out major renovation to hide it. The inspectors will obviously have this advance criticism high on their list of observations.
If there are no signatures of explosives work, what is in the building? The building is different from most other facilities at the sprawling Parchin plant. It is small and relatively isolated from other facilities. It is very unlikely to be for manufacturing given its small size and the lack of activity that has been observed there in recent years. There are no chemical signatures but possibly some small vent stacks. The shielding wall at one end looks like a beam stop for an industrial x-ray machine. The building has the signatures of a research and development facility or possibly a specialized testing building for plant support.
Nor does the building have the characteristics of a facility for handling or testing explosives, and the evidence for the existence of chamber of the kind the IAEA has posited is very weak for reasons I explained last December on this site, as well as some more recent work I’ve published for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (here and here). (For a more general Q&A about transparency, see this 2013 SIPRI report.) There has been far too much time, satellite photos, and verbiage wasted on speculating about “sanitizing” parking lots, moving earth, and building roads in the building’s vicinity, as both the IAEA and Iran recognize that simply collecting soil samples was never a scientific way to search for traces of uranium. The critical question is the building itself and what it houses or once housed.
The IAEA has visited Parchin twice before. For the possible 2015 visit there are likely to be only two or three inspectors. They need to be the best IAEA can offer. They need broad industrial experience, particularly in conventional munitions, rockets and missiles, because that is the mission of the Parchin Ammunition Plant, and there is a strong possibility that this building supports that mission. (Speculating even more broadly, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political front for the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), has claimed that laser isotope separation of uranium isotopes was undertaken at Parchin. The NCRI has an abysmal track record in its intelligence pronouncements, but this is one of many things the inspectors need to be aware of.) They need open minds and experienced observational skills.
They need to be exceptionally knowledgeable about nuclear munitions as well, as those governments and other critics of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran have raised their belief that the Parchin building was part of a nuclear-weapons program to an almost theological level.
In the two previous visits IAEA inspectors undertook in 2005, their findings were remarkably bland and unrevealing:
As described by the DDG-SG in his 1 March 2005 statement to the Board, in January 2005, Iran agreed, as a transparency measure, to permit the Agency to visit a site located at Parchin in order to provide assurance regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities at that site. Out of the four areas identified by the Agency to be of potential interest, the Agency was permitted to select any one area. The Agency was requested to minimize the number of buildings to be visited in that area, and selected five buildings. The Agency was given free access to those buildings and their surroundings and was allowed to take environmental samples, the results of which did not indicate the presence of nuclear material, nor did the Agency see any relevant dual use equipment or materials in the locations visited.
On 1 November 2005, the Agency was given access to a military site at Parchin where several environmental samples were taken. The Agency did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited, and the results of the analysis of environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material at those locations.
It appears that the IAEA inspectors prioritized sampling over observation. It strains credibility that IAEA inspectors, who normally inspect facilities like nuclear reactors, could visit a military explosives site and not observe any “unusual activities.” The only conclusion that one can reach is they were not qualified to observe or report on what they saw. This cannot be allowed to happen again. The inspectors need to report in detail what they saw, not what they did not see or didn’t understand.
The IAEA has an unprecedented one-time opportunity to visit the contested Parchin site and resolve major issues that have been on the table for four years. They need to judge the extent to which Iran is hiding past activities, if at all. The highest priority is observation and clear and detailed reporting. Taking samples may be appropriate, and, in any case, it has become essential in order to satisfy political expectations. Those samples may contribute to understanding. But priority one is to establish, to the best of IAEA’s ability, what this unremarkable place really is.