United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Why is Parchin Important (or Not)?

            Iran and the U.N. nuclear watchdog failed to strike a deal after two days of negotiations from January 16-17. The U.N. demand to access the Parchin military complex near Tehran has been a divisive issue in previous talks. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suspects Iran conducted experiments at Parchin related to nuclear weapons production.
            But a new report argues that Parchin may not be a critical site. The allegations that Iran carried out weapons-related experiments there “have questionable technical credibility,” according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Author Robert Kelley spent more than 35 years working in the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear complex. The following are excerpts from his report, with a link to the full text at the end.

Has Iran carried out any suspicious experiments?
 
            The IAEA says that Iran did very complex experiments involving explosives and many fibre-optic detectors and possibly uranium. However, the IAEA says these experiments were not done at Parchin but rather 500 km away at Marivan. In any case, the experiments at Marivan described in great detail by the IAEA would not use uranium.
 
Can high explosive tests using uranium be detected later?

            Yes. Uranium in an explosion will burn and produce a fine oxide powder. This is slightly radioactive and will persist for years, especially inside a chamber or a building, but also outdoors…
 
Has Iran demolished the building at Parchin that the IAEA wants to visit?

            No. Some reports implied that Iran had destroyed the building, but this is incorrect. The IAEA claims that five buildings on this site have been demolished but this cannot be seen in satellite imagery. Iran did demolish a small outbuilding on the same site that appears to have been a garage. It was probably demolished to make way for a new road that is being built at the Parchin complex. Another small structure, probably a garage or material store was reported destroyed but is still in place in the latest satellite imagery.

Is Iran bulldozing the site and covering it with earth to prevent the IAEA from detecting uranium contamination?
 
            Iran has engaged in large-scale bulldozing operations on about 25 hectares near the Parchin building. This includes the bulldozing of old dirt piles to level a field 500 metres north of the building of interest. However, there has been no such activity in the area west of the building, except for removing some parking pads within about 10 m of it. The fact that the building’s immediate vicinity has been largely untouched on the west side strongly suggests that the purpose of the earth-moving operations was for construction and renovation work and not for ‘sanitizing’ the site by covering up contamination. In any event, the IAEA should not be collecting samples of dirt or dead vegetation to detect tiny uranium traces…
 
Conclusions
 
            The impasse over the Parchin visit has taken on a symbolic importance that is distracting attention from the IAEA’s efforts to address a range of questions about the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. The IAEA has invested considerable time and effort trying to persuade Iran to allow it to visit one building at the huge Parchin military complex. For its part, Iran has been less than constructive by refusing the agency access to the building at Parchin without negotiating modalities that would let the IAEA conduct its visit and report its findings. The bitterness and squabbling over Parchin, in which statements and conclusions have got out of hand, is not productive—and it impedes the IAEA’s main mission.
 

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