Is the IAEA undermining nuclear talks with Iran?

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano faces increasing pressure over its investigation of Iran's nuclear programmeIt has become a social fact in the West that Iran must have something to hide about its nuclear program because it is “refusing to cooperate” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by barring Agency inspectors from visiting the military production complex at Parchin.  More specifically, as part of the IAEA’s efforts to explore what its current director general, Yukiya Amano, calls “possible military dimensions” of the program, the IAEA wants access to a particular part of Parchin.  The Agency says it wants such access to investigate claims that the Iranians carried out high-explosives testing there, supposedly related to the development of nuclear weapons.

A number of recent pieces—including by Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist who is professor and scientist-in-residence at the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and Robert Kelley, an American nuclear engineer who worked for 30 years in the University of California’s nuclear weapons laboratories before serving for nine years at the IAEA as a senior inspector—offer a meticulously detailed corrective to the prevailing, ill-informed Western narrative.  We will unpack this corrective by looking at two sets of issues:  1) the IAEA’s authority to access Parchin, and 2) whether there is actual evidence of nuclear weapons-related activity at Parchin, either in the builing on which the Agency is presently focused or more generally.

In an article in Foreign Policy and a post on Dan Joyner’s blog,, Yousaf Butt explains that the IAEA wants access to Parchin “because of secret evidence, provided by unidentified third-party intelligence agencies, implying that conventional explosive testing relevant to nuclear weaponization may have taken place a decade or so ago at Parchin.  The agency has not showed Iranian officials this evidence, which has led Iran to insist that it must have been fabricated.”  (Butt aptly notes that “in the past, forgeries have been passed along to the IAEA,” as in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War; “if recent leaks that the IAEA is using mathematically flawed graphs in its case against Iran are to be believed, the IAEA’s case is further weakened.”)

Moreover, “there is no evidence of current nuclear work” at Parchin.  On this point, Butt reminds that, in fact, “the IAEA has already visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing—although they did not go to the specific area they are now interested in.  However, the IAEAcould have gone to that area even in 2005—they simply chose to go to other sites on the military base.  As the IAEA report at the time summarized:

‘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 materails in the locations visited.’”

Butt buttresses this important point by quoting Olli Heinonen, the Agency’s former head of safeguards who led the Parchin inspections:

“At the time, [Parchin] was divided into four geographical sectors by the Iranians.  Using satellite and other data, inspectors were allowed by the Iranians to choose any sector, and then to visit any building inside that sector.  Those 2005 inspections included more than five buildings each, and soil and environmental sampling.  They yielded nothing suspicious, but did not include the building now of interest to the IAEA.  The selection [of target buildings] did not take place in advance; it took place just when we arrived, so all of Parchin was available.  When we drove there and arrived, we told them which building.”

As Butt writes, “Would the Iranians really have risked exposing some nefarious nuclear weapons-related work at Parchin by making all of Parchin available to the IAEA in 2005?”  But beyond this history, Butt notes that there are real limits to the IAEA’s legal authority to access Parchin—and serious questions about its intentions in seeking to do so now.  As to the law, Butt points out,

“Normally the IAEA does not have the legal authority to inspect undeclared non-nuclear-materials related facilities, in a nation—like Iran—that has not ratified the Additional Protocol.  The IAEA can call for ‘special inspections’ but they have not done so.  They can also choose arbitration, as specified in the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, but again they have not done that.

In fact, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement between Iran and the IAEA states quite clearly that its ‘exclusive purpose’ is to verify that nuclear material ‘is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.’  Nothing else—that is its exclusive prupose.  It does not cover conventional explosives testing, as suspected at Parchin (according to secret information given by a third-party intelligence agency).  The IAEA itself has admitted that ‘absent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons-related activity is limited.”

In other words, “Iran has been more cooperative than other countries would be in the same situation”—a judgment affirmed by former IAEA director general Hans Blix—“and indeed more cooperative than it legally needs to be.  It has shown great goodwill by allowing the IAEA’s visit to Parchin in 2005.  And let’s not forget that, in 2004, Brazilian authorities refused to give the IAEA inspectors access to the Resende uranium enrichment facility with nary a peep out of the ‘world community.’”

As to the IAEA’s intentions, it is hard to dispute Butt’s provocative assessment that “the IAEA’s insistence to get into Parchin to verify long-ago non-nuclear issues is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot, but by continuing to cast Iran in a negative light—when, in fact, Iran is within its rights to refuse IAEA entry—the agency is poisoning the atmosphere” for future nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran.”  This disturbing judgment is reinforced by the way in which the IAEA says it wants to conduct any subsequent inspections of Parchin.

On this point, Butt quotes Heinonen once again, who points out that, by specifying, in advance and publicly, the building it wants to visit, the Agency’s approach would not resolve international concerns, but would almost certainly “yield doubts about the credibility” of any eventual inspection:

“Let’s assume [inspectors] finally get there and they find nothing.  People will say, ‘Oh, it’s because Iran has sanitized it…But in reality it may have not been sanitized…I don’t know why [the IAEA] approached it this way, which was not a standard practice.”

Heinonen’s critique of his former employer’s current approach to the Parchin issue is trenchant, but it also assumes that there may, in fact, be something to “sanitize” there.  As to whether there is actual evidence that Iran conducted nuclear weapons-related work at Parchin, a shortpaper by Robert Kelley for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute offers a compelling assessment that

“less has been going on at the site of interest than meets the eye.  The allegations that Iran carried out hydrodynamic experiments related to nuclear explosives in a large steel containment vessel there have questionable technical credibility.  Moreover, recent reports picked up in the mainstream media may have misinterpreted unrelated construction or renovation work at the site as indicators that Iran was ‘sanitizing’ the site to remove evidence of uranium contamination.  This suggests that the case for visiting the Parchin site—a matter on which the IAEA continues to insist—is not as clear-cut or compelling as some experts and officials portray it.”

To lay out this assessment, Kelley addresses a series of relevant questions, including:  “Does Iran need a large conventional explosion containment chamber to develop nuclear explosives?”, “What do we know about the alleged explosion chamber?”, “Would Iran need to do experiments involving uranium and conventional high explosives in a chamber if it wanted to develop a nuclear weapon?”, “Has Iran carried out any suspicious experiments?”, “Has Iran demolished the building at Parchin that the IAEA wants to visit?”, “Do IAEA collectors usually collect soil samples to detect traces of uranium experiments?”, and “Is Iran bulldozing the site and covering it with earth to prevent the IAEA from detecting uranium contamination?”

Kelley’s answers, which merit reading in their entirety, show (among other things) that the kind of explosives test Iran is alleged to have conducted in a containment vessel at Parchin is normally (and best) “done in the open or in a tunnel,” and that sites where high explosives tests with uranium have been carried out can’t really be sanitized.  Kelley also agrees with Butt that “the IAEA is stretching its mandate to the limit in asking for access to a military site based on tenuous evidence.”  And we simply cannot resist reproducing in its entirety Kelley’s answer to the question, “Did Iran tear down buildings while shrouding them under bright pink tarpaulins?”:

“In the summer of 2012 Iran began major renovations at the site.  Workers decreased perimeter security by tearing down fences, demolished one outbuilding and began renovation of two buildings.  They covered both buildings with pink styrofoam insulation, which can be seen in Figure 5.  One building is completely covered with insulation and the other is about 60 per cent covered.  Raw materials can be seen on the ground nearby.  The buildings were then reroofed and are at different stages of renovation even today.”  Then, to undercut those who might refuse to believe the evidence before their eyes in Figure 5, Kelley—in the ultimate rebuff to fantasies about pink tarps at Parchin.

By Going to Tehran


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