Reports of a military site being sanitised in anticipation of a nuclear inspection have been denied by Tehran, and are being queried in western capitals
Iran has denied attempting to clean up the military site at Parchin that IAEA officials asked to visit during inspections in January and February, without success. Ramin Mehmanparast, the foreign ministry spokesman, had this to say:
Parchin is a military site where conventional military activities take place. Comments about cleaning up military nuclear tests are not accurate or wise. This is invalid propaganda…Those who are familiar with technical issues know that such comments are not important. If nuclear test activities take place at a site, the evidence cannot be hidden.
He was referring to an Associated Press report which caught a lot of attention last week. It raised eyebrows in particular, because it quotes two unnamed diplomats as saying that an “experimental neutron device” had been tested there.
This was a reference to a uranium deuteride initiator mentioned in a two-page document leaked to The Times in 2009. This is a trigger that gets a chain reaction going by firing neutrons into the fissile core of a warhead. It was mentioned in last November’s IAEA report on Iran, and the IAEA has asked for an explanation. Iran has denied having or testing any such device.
But the IAEA did not suggest there was any evidence of testing of a neutron initiator at Parchin. European and US diplomats also say they have no evidence that the site was used for such tests, raising the question of where the report came from, at a particularly tense time.
Western diplomats were also cautious on the question of an alleged clean-up. They echoed remarks by the IAEA director, Yukiya Amano, that there was evidence of activity at Parchin, and suggestions at an IAEA technical briefing for its governing board that such activity made a visit a “matter of urgency’, but they said they had not seen detailled evidence of earth-moving equipment at work, as described in the AP report.
Update: One western diplomat said that evidence of clean-up “activity” at Parchin mentioned by the IAEA safeguards people at the technical briefing came from a single member state and could not be independently confirmed by the agency. That raises a question of why Amano mentioned it at all.
The IAEA chief inspector, Herman Nackaerts made Parchin his litmus test for Iranian cooperation because of intelligence collected by his safeguards team suggesting that a steel vessel had been installed which could have been used for ‘hydro-dynamic’ testing – blowing up hemispheric arrays of high explosives to see if they would have the desired implosive effect on a dense metal core, like highly enriched uranium.
The IAEA have their own commercial satellite images of a site at Parchin where something is being built, but the critical picture purporting to show the steel vessel (supposedly the size of a double-decker bus) was provided by a single unnamed member state. It is uncorroborated. Hence the need to go and check. But if a steel containment vessel was being used for such testing, then presumably a big clean-up requiring the removal of a layer of topsoil would not be necessary.
At his news conference today, Mehmanparast hinted that perhaps an new inspection of Parchin might be possible after all. He said:
If the agency’s team had had more patience and could have stayed longer, maybe they could have made the visit after an agreement was reached on the framework.
This seems pretty disingenous as the IAEA team and the Iranians got nowhere on a framework for inspections. The Iranians wanted the schedule of inspections to be laid out in advance on the understanding that no follow-up visits or interviews would be permitted. Nackaerts refused to operate under those rules, apparently telling the Iranians that inspectors would have to make the decisions on where and when to go for their verification to be credible.
The same goes for a reported Iranian invitation to come to Parchin last week. According to diplomats in Vienna, Tehran simply put out an account of their position on Parchin, that it could be visited once the necessary “modality” had been resolved with the inspectors. In practice this meant that Nackaerts agree in advance to the limits to his work, and he rejected those constraints. So as far as the IAEA is concerned, the inspectors have not been asked back.
from Julian Borger