Iran’s clean-up of a site allegedly used for nuclear-weapons experiments won’t obstruct United Nations atomic inspectors’ ability to carry out a probe, according to current and former officials.
Satellite photos published last month by a Washington-based research institute showed razed structures and streams of water running out of a building at the Parchin military complex thought to house a test-blast chamber. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency reported in November that the Persian Gulf nation used the facility for atomic-bomb tests.
“There very likely were experiments there related to nuclear weapons” and the IAEA “may be able to disprove Iran’s cover story,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. diplomat who now runs the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ nuclear disarmament program, said by phone yesterday. “Even if the IAEA goes there and doesn’t find anything incriminating, they want to pull on the threads of Iran’s story and see what unravels.”
Parchin, 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of Tehran, is the military base where IAEA inspectors said they have “credible” evidence showing Iran built a container inside of which scientists studied blast patterns useful for assembling a nuclear weapon. Iran says the evidence given to the IAEA was falsified by intelligence agencies.
Access to the site has topped the Vienna-based agency’s agenda in recent negotiating rounds with Iranian authorities. IAEA inspectors are concerned that Iran is covering up atomic work and making the detection of nuclear particles more difficult, senior international officials said May 25 on condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.
The IAEA’s decision to focus on Parchin to the exclusion of other people and places in Iran has stirred debate among former nuclear non-proliferation officials.
IAEA investigators should zero in on Iran’s Physics Research Center instead of Parchin, Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former top inspector in Iran, said in a May 9 analysis he co-wrote with David Albright, another ex-inspector and director of the Institute for Science and International Security. Fitzpatrick wrote a report called “The Parchin Trap” in March.
The clean-up at Parchin began after the IAEA published its suspicions in November, a senior Western official said on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment publicly. No activity had been observed around the site for years before satellite photos showed water and rubble strewn around the locality.
“Uranium contamination inside the building and equipment may be dispersed over a large area,” said Robert Kelley, who led the IAEA’s nuclear inspections in Iraq before the 2003 war. “If Iran washes down all this equipment and allows the water to run across the parking lot into a ditch, then all the uranium will end up concentrated.”
While Kelley isn’t convinced that the IAEA’s Parchin intelligence is credible, inspectors will find atomic particles if the Iranians did experiment with nuclear material at the site, he wrote in an analysis for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The IAEA and Iran were expected to sign an agreement “quite soon” to broaden inspectors’ access to suspected nuclear sites, including Parchin, Director General Yukiya Amano said May 22 after he returned from Tehran.
Skepticism that the deal will be signed in the near future is growing, according to the senior Western official.
Iran backed off earlier statements that a trip to Parchin could be arranged when Fereidoun Abbasi, head of the Islamic republic’s Atomic Energy Organization, said on May 27 that the IAEA hadn’t convinced him of the need to visit.
“No documents or reason has been presented to us,” he said, according to state-run Fars news agency. “The agency is interested in visiting Parchin due to pressure from countries that want the agency to investigate the issue.”
The IAEA’s 35-member board of governors convenes its quarterly meeting next week in the Austrian capital, where Amano is expected to update diplomats on the status of the accord.