Trust. But verify?

Photographer: Rick Wilking/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran Already Sanitizing Nuclear Site, Intel Warns

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The U.S. intelligence community has informed Congress of evidence that Iran was sanitizing its suspected nuclear military site at Parchin, in broad daylight, days after agreeing to a nuclear deal with world powers.

For senior lawmakers in both parties, the evidence calls into question Iran’s intention to fully account for the possible military dimensions of its current and past nuclear development. The International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran have a side agreement meant to resolve past suspicions about the Parchin site, and lawmakers' concerns about it has already become a flashpoint because they do not have access to its text.

Intelligence officials and lawmakers who have seen the new evidence, which is still classified, told us that satellite imagery picked up by U.S. government assets in mid- and late July showed that Iran had moved bulldozers and other heavy machinery to the Parchin site and that the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Iranian government was working to clean up the site ahead of planned inspections by the IAEA.

The intelligence community shared its findings with lawmakers and some Congressional staff late last week, four people who have seen the evidence told us. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence briefed lawmakers about the evidence Monday, three U.S. senators said.

“I am familiar with it,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told us Tuesday. “I think it’s up to the administration to draw their conclusions. Hopefully this is something they will speak on, since it is in many ways verified by commercial imagery. And their actions seem to be against the grain of the agreement.”

Burr said Iran’s activities at Parchin complicate the work of the IAEA inspectors who are set to examine the site in the coming months. IAEA's director general, Yukiya Amano, was in Washington on Wednesday to brief lawmakers behind closed doors about the side agreements.

“They are certainly not going to see the site that existed. Whether that’s a site that can be determined what it did, only the technical experts can do that,” Burr said. “I think it’s a huge concern.”

A senior intelligence official, when asked about the satellite imagery, told us the IAEA was also familiar with what he called "sanitization efforts" since the deal was reached in Vienna, but that the U.S. government and its allies had confidence that the IAEA had the technical means to detect past nuclear work anyway.

Another administration official explained that this was in part because any trace amounts of enriched uranium could not be fully removed between now and Oct. 15, the deadline for Iran to grant access and answer remaining questions from the IAEA about Parchin.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told us Tuesday that while Iran’s activity at Parchin last month isn’t technically a violation of the agreement it signed with the U.S. and other powers, it does call into question Iran’s intention to be forthright about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

“The intel briefing was troubling to me … some of the things that are happening, especially happening in such a blatant way," he said. "Iran is going to know that we know.” He added the new information gave him "a lot of concerns" about Iran coming clean on military dimensions of its nuclear work.

According to the overall nuclear agreement, sanctions relief for Iran can come only after the IAEA and Iran resolve their outstanding concerns about possible military dimensions of past and current work. But the agreement does not specify how the issue must be resolved, only that it be resolved to the IAEA’s satisfaction.

Several senior lawmakers, including Democrats, are concerned that Iran will be able to collect its own soil samples at Parchin with only limited supervision, a practice several lawmakers have compared to giving suspected drug users the benefit of the doubt to submit specimens unsupervised. Iran’s sanitization of the site further complicates that verification.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told us Tuesday that this area is part of why he is undecided on supporting the Iran deal.

“I have concerns about the vigorous efforts by Iran to sanitize Parchin,” he said. “I’ve gotten some reassurance about how difficult it is for them to effectively conceal what we know to have been their illicit nuclear weapons developments there.”  

Coons said he was most concerned about the integrity of the IAEA inspection process going forward and not as concerned about figuring out what happened in the site in the past: “We know what the Iranians did at Parchin.”

David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, obtained a commercially available image of the Parchin site taken by satellites on July 26 that shows renewed activity at the Parchin site. He told us there are two new large vehicles, alterations ongoing to roofs of two of the buildings and new structures near two of the buildings.

“You have to worry that this could be an attempt by Iran to defeat the sampling, that it’s Iran’s last-ditch effort to eradicate evidence there,” he said. “The day is coming when they are going to have to let the IAEA into Parchin, so they may be desperate to finish sanitizing the site.”

The facility, outside of Tehran, first came to the attention of the international community in 2004 when news reports surfaced that it was being used to test explosives for a nuclear warhead.

A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Assessment concluded that Iran halted this kind of work in 2003. Between 2005 and today, Iran has allowed IAEA inspectors access to Parchin -- a vast complex with dozens of buildings -- on only five occasions. In 2012, Abright’s group reported on satellite imagery that it said showed efforts to clean up evidence of an explosives testing chamber there.

Representative Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Amano had told him in recent conversations that the IAEA had "thousands of pages of documentations on tests to weaponize a nuclear device." Royce added, "For a long time, they have been altering sites."

The IAEA has documented this as well. The agency's report from May 29 this year said there was  satellite imagery of vehicles, equipment and "probable construction materials" at Parchin. The report said, "The activities that have taken place at this location since February 2012 are likely to have undermined the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification."

Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the U.S. government has “absolute knowledge” about what Iran has done in the past. Ahead of the vote on the agreement next month, many lawmakers don't share Kerry's confidence. Iran would seem to have its doubts as well, since it's still trying to cover its tracks. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net