Iran and the IAEA at Parchin

by Aslı Bâli | published February 7, 2013 - 3:40pm

Few foreign policy issues garner as much interest in the American press as the Iranian nuclear program. As illustrated by last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for President Obama’s nominee as secretary of defense, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, the US government is equally focused on Iran. The committee was more concerned with Hagel’s positions on Iran than his views on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia combined -- despite that fact that these countries are all places where the US military is engaged in combat, something not true of Iran.

Yet despite all of this attention, some stories concerning Iran’s nuclear program manage to slip through the cracks. Tellingly, the stories that fall flattest are those that contain evidence challenging the received wisdom that the Iranian nuclear program has “military dimensions” (or as the International Atomic Energy Agency prefers to put it, “possible military dimensions”).

One such story that has been bubbling in the blogosphere but is curiously underplayed by the mainstream media is the assessment offered by Robert Kelley of the dispute between the UN nuclear watchdog and Iran over access to the military production complex located at Parchin, near Tehran.

Kelley is a nuclear engineer who served in the nuclear division of the US Department of Energy for over 35 years. In this capacity, Kelley worked at Los Alamos and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and was seconded to the IAEA for the Agency’s nuclear inspections in Iraq in the 1990s. In short, he is a distinguished scientist who is eminently qualified to examine the public record that is the basis for allegations that Iran may have conducted uranium experiments with military applications at the Parchin facility. Those allegations are based on satellite images of Parchin and a drawing of an explosive testing chamber allegedly located in a small compound of four buildings that make up one small area of the large Parchin complex. (Much of this information comes to the IAEA from an unidentified intelligence agency but has been leaked to the press.)

Analyzing the computer-aided design of the chamber in the drawing and the satellite images -- all of which are available through leaks and imaging provided by organizations like the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) -- Kelley reached the conclusion some eight months ago that the crisis over the Parchin facility had produced a mountain out of a mole hill.

More recently, he published a detailed report for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, where he now works as a senior research fellow, arguing that the stated concerns about activities at the Parchin facility don’t add up. Beyond the SIPRI report, Kelley has tried to generate awareness by publishing in additional venues, including a report in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly summarizing his findings and then reposting that summary for wider circulation at the Arms Control Law blog.

Despite the multiple venues in which Kelley has advanced his analysis -- which suggests that concerns about “possible military dimensions” are overblown and even that the IAEA is needlessly fomenting a crisis -- the flagship newspapers that have reported heavily on Parchin have not yet relayed Kelley’s findings. This is all the more puzzling given that reports from comparable sources, like ISIS, have been prominently featured in the New York Times and the Washington Post, but in ways that underscore the official IAEA (and US) line about Parchin.

To summarize Kelley’s arguments, there are four core problems with the claim that Iran is seeking to sanitize evidence of high explosives testing with uranium at Parchin and that the IAEA must gain access to the site.

First, the drawing of the alleged explosive testing chamber that has been leaked does not conform to the technical specifications necessary for explosives testing involving uranium.

Second, the technical basis for the inspections that the IAEA has requested at Parchin is unsound because the prior notice of specific locations to be visited clouds the credibility of findings.

Third, speculation based on leaked information suggesting that construction work around the Parchin site is an Iranian effort to “sanitize” the area is unfounded as trace materials would still be identifiable if uranium were used in explosives testing at the site.

And finally, fourth, by exceeding its legal authority in demanding a “transparency visit” of a non-nuclear site on flimsy evidence, the IAEA is needlessly straining relations with Iran and delaying the resumption of talks between Iran and the P5+1. (As of now, these talks are slated to restart on February 26.)

In other words, Kelley’s assessment is that the diagram and satellite images do not form a credible basis for the claim that Iran conducted high explosives testing involving uranium at Parchin. The alleged explosives chamber in the diagram does not meet the specifications that would be required for such testing and claims that construction at the site is a cover-up depend on a misunderstanding of how inspections are conducted and what “sanitizing” of uranium particles would require.

Further, Kelley notes that on two previous occasions the IAEA was indeed granted access to the Parchin complex -- at a time when Iran was allowing the Agency broader inspections authority, before the Iranian file was referred to the UN Security Council -- and had the option of visiting any quadrant they chose upon arrival at the site. Given that the suspected tests occurred prior to 2004, its earlier Parchin visits conducted without advance warning would have enabled the Agency to collect the information it is seeking today. Yet there was no Iranian objection to the inspections team’s access at the time. As it happens, the IAEA did not visit the four buildings currently at issue, but that was simply because they chose to focus on a different quadrant -- not because the Iranians expressed any preference. This modality for inspections -- identifying a broad location for inspection without revealing the specific zone to be visited until inspectors are on the site -- would yield sounder findings than the Agency’s present approach. Specifically, Kelley notes that by declaring in advance the buildings at Parchin that the IAEA seeks to visit, the Agency has introduced a logical flaw into the inspections regime forcing the Iranians to prove a negative. That is, if inspections yield no evidence of military applications the Iranians will now be asked to disprove lingering suspicions that advance notice enabled them to hide the ball. This catch-22, by which weapons inspections produce more doubt than certainty, arose in the decade-long search for WMD in Iraq.

The tensions in the relationship between the IAEA and Iran are uncomfortably reminiscent of the UNSCOM experience. Kelley’s assessment raises serious questions about the degree to which the IAEA is compromising its credibility as a competent technical secretariat by pursuing questionable inspections on weak authority in Iran. Worse, the Agency may be fueling an unnecessary crisis that lends momentum to confrontation rather than cooperation in the ongoing international standoff with Iran.

The doubts Kelley casts on the basis for inspections at Parchin have gotten some press coverage, but they deserve an airing in the prestigious papers that most directly shape elite and public opinion. The repeated references to concerns about Parchin in the media, think tank reports and official US statements are based on a small handful of sources creating a feedback loop that magnifies partial leaked information, misinterprets satellite images and reinforces a sense of crisis. That Kelley’s alternative analysis cannot get a hearing in that echo chamber is deeply troubling.

Doubts concerning Iraqi weapons stockpiles fell on deaf ears in 2003. Avoiding another senseless war of choice in the Middle East requires, at a minimum, that disconfirming evidence be debated in public.