Iran, the IAEA and the Parchin problem

Jun 07 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
David Cliff, London
Tomorrow, IAEA and Iranian officials are set to meet – the latest in a string of meetings between the two sides over recent months – to further discuss access rights to nuclear sites in Iran where suspect activities are alleged to have taken place. Top of the IAEA’s priority list is the Parchin nuclear site south-east of Tehran. In November 2011, the IAEA noted that experiments and testing with potential relevance to nuclear weapons development (particularly involving high explosives) may have been conducted at Parchin in the years after 2000.
So far, IAEA efforts to secure access to Parchin have been unsuccessful – despite an apparent attempt by Iran to adopt a more conciliatory tone with the international community, and especially with the ‘P5+1’ group of countries, over the first half of this year. Although the kind of testing suspected to have taken place at Parchin may not have involved fissile materials, which could set the stage for a so-called special inspection, the IAEA is keen to gain access because, as they noted last November, these experiments are ‘strong indictors of possible weapons development.’
In its latest report on safeguards implementation in Iran (dated 25 May 2012), the IAEA noted that based on satellite imagery, after years of virtual inactivity at Parchin, ‘buildings of interest to the Agency’ at the site appear to have been recently subject to ‘extensive activities that could hamper the Agency’s ability to undertake effective verification’ there. In less diplomatic terms, on 30 May 2012 the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) highlighted suspected ‘sanitization activity’ at Parchin (including, most recently, the demolition of two buildings) that raise concerns of an attempt by Iran ‘to destroy evidence of alleged past weaponization activities.’ As ISIS note, it may be the case that Iran is ‘attempting to raze the site prior to allowing an IAEA visit.’
This week’s talks between Iran and the IAEA follow an announcement by the Agency last month that an inspection deal addressing Parchin and other matters of concern looked set to be reached ‘quite soon’. Those were the words of the IAEA’s director-general, Yukiya Amano, on his return from a visit to Tehran where he held negotiations with Iranian officials, including Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Following the visit, Mr Jalili spoke of his desire for ‘good cooperation in the future’ with the IAEA, but an agreement has yet to materialise.
Given the controversy over Parchin, and the array of other concerns of suspected Iranian nuclear weapons-related research and development, the P5+1 are sure to be watching with interest what happens when the IAEA and Iran meet this week. They, too, have been engaged in intense diplomacy with Iran over recent months as part of a separate, but parallel, effort to resolve ongoing concerns over the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. (In particular, the P5+1 talks are focused primarily on Iran’s controversial uranium enrichment activities.) Initial talks in Istanbul in March between the P5+1 and Iran seemed to go well – although nothing was agreed, beyond agreement to meet again in Baghdad in May – but those second-round talks, where more substantive progress was hoped-for, fell flat. Iran and the P5+1 are now set to meet again in Moscow later in June. And as Julian Borger has written, ‘without more concrete achievements’ at the Moscow round of talks, the diplomatic process looks set to run out of steam.
If an inspection deal is not reached between the IAEA and Iran on Friday, or as a direct result of those discussions, then that diplomatic track might run out of steam very soon as well. Iran’s recent activities at Parchin suggest that the Islamic Republic is making a concerted attempt to cover-up evidence of some sort. Meanwhile, its refusal to admit IAEA inspectors to the site, while nonetheless expressing a willingness to reach a deal, suggests that its intention is to keep the Agency in a holding pattern until any covering-up activities have been fully implemented.
There is a very real and growing danger that an IAEA inspection of Parchin (if or when such access is agreed), will have minimal verification significance – but nonetheless provide an opportunity for Iran to argue that it represents evidence of its cooperative intent. The investigation of suspected nuclear weapons-related activities is not an everyday verification task for the IAEA, but in this case it is a priority. It is often said that Mr Amano has followed a tougher line with Iran than his predecessor, Mohammed ElBaradei, since coming to office in 2009, and with Iran arguably seeking to buy time (both in this and the P5+1 process), toughness is what is required. To lessen the chance of making any inspection of Parchin an exercise of little verification value, it must be made to happen without any further delay, and – critically – without any further confidence-eroding activities from Iran on the ground.
Postscript (Tuesday 12 June 2012). The talks held in Vienna on Friday 8 June 2012 failed to result in an agreement on further investigating possible nuclear weaponization activities in Iran. According to the head of the IAEA's Department of Safeguards, Herman Nackaerts, ‘no progress’ had been made. Mr Nackaerts noted that Iran had raised issues that had already been discussed, as well as new ones. This, he said, was ‘disappointing’. Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said that talks between the two sides would continue. No date for further discussions was set.


Last changed: Jun 12 2012 at 6:06 PM