Putting Parchin to Rest

The suspect building (the larger one on the left side of the photo) and its environs on a day this past June as the the P5+1 negotiations were nearing an end. Not much happening.

begby Robert Kelley

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano and his top deputy last month finally paid a personal visit to a building at the sprawling Parchin military factory complex in Iran that they have suspected of housing unspecified nuclear-related experiments. Amano later reported that, in addition to some signs of recent renovation work, the building had “no equipment” inside it.

Missing was a 700-ton block of steel-reinforced concrete, about the size of a two-story house, surrounding an approximately 200-ton steel vessel—bigger than a London double-decker bus and 15 times heavier. This missing equipment had been thought to be for experiments to develop nuclear weapons. According to one carefully researched study, it would have looked something like this:


There are two possible explanations for the absence of the massive block of concrete and the giant steel chamber.

To Be or Not To Be

They could have been dismantled and all trace of them removed at some point in the last 11 years, undetected by commercial or spy satellites or other intelligence sources. The building has been under close observation, especially over the last four years. It would be disappointing, indeed, if the billions of dollars spent on earth-observation satellites—photographs, radar, infrared, and so on— would miss the amount of activity that the removal of such massive objects would have required in terms of workers, convoys of dump trucks removing massive amounts of debris, and the like. Of course, the easiest way of dismantling it would have been to blow up the building and its contents.

The more likely explanation for their absence is that they never actually existed. As I have pointed out in articles for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), IHS Jane’s 360, and LobeLog (“The Parchin Puzzle”), the IAEA’s original claims (Paragraph 49 of the Annex) regarding the existence of the chamber and the massive steel-reinforced concrete block that bolstered it were highly questionable from the time the agency first published them in November 2011. The alleged provenance of the chamber from designs by a former Soviet scientist, the hypothetical purpose for which it was to be used, the timelines for its alleged fabrication and installation, and the actual satellite imagery of the building and the area around it did not add up. It was the dictionary definition of a chimera, one that could not withstand any serious intelligence analysis.

But these claims gave four years of employment to armchair nuclear-weapons and satellite-imagery “experts.” The world has been treated to scare stories from reliably anti-Iran media, lobbyists, and Twitter analysts. Tales of bulldozers working on roads hundreds of meters away were turned into the “sanitization of traces of uranium.” Common pink Styrofoam insulation installed on the building became “shrouding of the containment vessel building” (paragraph 44), presumably to keep hidden what was going on from the prying eyes of overhead satellites.

None of these claims was advanced by government experts or identifiable sources. It was left to the media and others to spread and speculate about information from anonymous sources all of which implied that Iran was desperately trying to hide guilty activity and outwit the IAEA.

Reports and Sabotage

The most recent claims of Iranian obfuscation came last August when the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence official had testified behind closed doors that bulldozers and other heavy machinery had been moved to Parchin in an effort to clean up the site in advance of planned IAEA inspections. Commercial satellite imagery of the site, however, showed that none of the allegations of activity at the site was of any significance. There was nothing new or out of the ordinary happening at the site within the reported timeframe.

These reports appeared carefully timed to sabotage delicate talks between the IAEA and Iran over arrangements to close the file on Iran’s past “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) of its known nuclear program. What the anonymous senior intelligence official was allegedly referring to in his or her testimony remains a mystery. But the visit by Amano, who also cited “significant progress” in clearing up outstanding PMD issues, made clear that the most recent efforts to undermine the IAEA’s efforts to clear the file have failed. A final report on Parchin and PMD is now expected to be submitted to the agency’s board by December 15. And now that the agency’s top two officials have confirmed that the building is empty, it would appear to be time to put this sorry episode to bed.

As noted above, it is of course possible that Iran demolished a massive concrete block and a chamber that it surrounded without leaving any evidence for extensive satellite imagery. More likely, forces hostile to Iran planted a story at IAEA based on designs and analysis included in a book by a former Soviet scientist who dreamt of building a large-explosion containment chamber in the future and who had spent some time in Iran. But none of the story’s details supports the conclusion that the chamber was ever built, was connected to Iran or Parchin, ever used for nuclear weapons development, or that nuclear materials were involved.

This raises the question: why would Iran spend millions of dollars to build something that is not particularly useful for anyone developing nuclear weapons? This is especially true for a country that has large areas of desert and tunnels to undertake the experiments for which the chamber was allegedly designed. For reasons I outlined in “The Parchin Puzzle,” testing in the desert is a much more cost-effective solution and far less susceptible to satellite detection than concentrating incriminating evidence at a fixed industrial facility.

Remarkably, the IAEA alleged in the annex of the same November 2011 report that this is exactly what Iran did. The Annex (Paragaph 43) stated without caveat that Iran carried out a large-scale hydrodynamic test of a hemispherical mock-up of a bomb at an undisclosed site in Marivan (close to the Iraqi border). It was not Parchin, and there was no mention of a containment chamber. Doing the experiment in a lightly populated area, in the open or in a tunnel, and not in a known R&D facility, would make much more sense. That strongly suggests that if Iran intended to perform a 70-kilogram high-explosive test, it would not have gone to all the trouble and enormous expense of building a multi-million-dollar chamber inside a well-known military factory complex. It’s worth noting that Iran last year offered to permit the IAEA to visit Marivan, but the offer was rejected. Presumably because Marivan is a very large province, the agency may not have had a precise idea of where the alleged test took place. That rejection, however, suggests that, by the time the offer was extended, the IAEA itself may have entertained strong doubts about the soundness of the information on which it based its previous claims regarding the Marivan test. And it has since remained silent on the issue.

Iran too failed to play a constructive role in resolving this issue by not permitting the IAEA access to Parchin after the agency’s two visits in 2005 when the Agency concluded there were no nuclear materials or unusual activities. A visit to the suspect building could have immediately determined what was—or was not—there since the IAEA renewed its request in 2012. Iran may not have wanted to create a precedent for visits to military facilities. Knowing that there was no chamber in the suspect building, Iran may also have wanted to test the IAEA’s analytical competence, in part by making superficial renovations to the site to determine how they would be interpreted and to measure the extent to which such interpretations demonstrate bias. Tehran also would have undoubtedly hoped to draw out the IAEA, if possible, regarding the sources on which it was relying.

The Parchin story has been fascinating for its twists and turns and its enduring attraction for those who are opposed to any rapprochement between Iran and the West. If, as it now appears, there was never any chamber at the suspect building at Parchin, the IAEA’s Board of Governors should launch a truly independent investigation into the genesis of this unlikely story, and how the agency accepted and amplified this chimera only to see it fade away after the director general himself saw the ground truth for himself.

Photo: The suspect building (the larger one on the left side of the photo) and its environs on a day this past June as the the P5+1 negotiations were nearing an end. Not much happening.

Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a licensed professional nuclear and mechanical engineer in California. He spent his career in nuclear weapons development activities such as plutonium metallurgy, survivability of U.S. nuclear warheads in ABM intercepts and isotope separation by gas centrifuge and lasers. He later used these hands-on skills to lead intelligence analysis of foreign nuclear weapons systems for the U.S. government and then as a director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly in weapons related non-proliferation analysis in Iraq, South Africa and Libya. Along the way, he has been a research reactor supervisor, a plutonium facility manager and director of the DOE Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis Air Force Base. He currently writes on non-proliferation for a number of publications and is an associate research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.