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Focus on Base Divides Iran Watchers

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A Nov. 7 satellite image of the Parchin military base in Iran. Independent experts are divided over the facility’s importance to a United Nations probe intended to clarify whether Iran’s nuclear program has military aims (AP Photo/Institute for Science and International Security). A Nov. 7 satellite image of the Parchin military base in Iran. Independent experts are divided over the facility’s importance to a United Nations probe intended to clarify whether Iran’s nuclear program has military aims (AP Photo/Institute for Science and International Security).

WASHINGTON -- A yearlong push by international nuclear investigators to visit a military base in Iran has divided issue experts between defenders of the effort and critics who warn it could undercut a wider probe into the nation's atomic activities.

Iran has rejected multiple requests by the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit the Parchin military complex since late 2011, when the organization highlighted suspicions that the site had at one point hosted a tank capable of facilitating nuclear-related explosives tests as well as development of a "neutron initiator" for activating atomic detonations.

Satellite images from 2012 revealed a number of demolition and construction projects had launched near the suspected container's housing structure.

The Institute for Science and International Security argues the agency's interest is likely justified, and has pointed to signs that buildings are being put up or taken down at the base as possible moves to obfuscate a potential future inspection.

Former IAEA expert Robert Kelley, though, has questioned the basis for the agency's focus on the Parchin site and suggested that emphasis is "distracting attention" from the other areas of international uncertainty over Iran's atomic activities.

Iran's movement of soil around the suspected tank facility is unlikely to be an attempt to "sanitize" the area, Kelley contended in a Jan. 18 analysis for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He noted that the west side of "the building’s immediate vicinity has been largely untouched."

The agency's audits can include sampling for anthropogenic uranium traces that could be a sign of undeclared nuclear activity. However, the organization would not ordinarily collect earth samples because "all soil contains significant amounts of uranium" that significantly inhibits tracking of man-made material, Kelley wrote.

The "mischaracterization of satellite images of Parchin ... is more consistent with an IAEA agenda to target Iran than of technical analysis," Kelley added in the Jan. 18 edition of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly.

A Jan. 25 ISIS assessment, though, suggests that past experimentation and more recent soil transfers "could have spread incriminating radioactive material beyond the immediate area of the buildings."

The U.N. nuclear watchdog did not visit the suspected container housing in 2005, when Iran granted inspectors access to certain sections of the site, noted Yousaf Butt of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The agency reported finding no evidence of suspect nuclear activity during two trips to the base in 2005, when Iran granted "free access" to sites in one of four areas deemed of "potential interest," according to the IAEA safeguards assessment from September of that year. The U.N. organization honed in on five structures using satellite and other data and inspected the structures in January, but neither that trip nor another visit in November turned up incriminating material, according to that report and follow-up documents from November and February.

Butt emphasized that Iran had no opportunity to eliminate incriminating material from locations visited by the agency in 2005 because Tehran was not made aware of what parts of the base were of interest to the agency in advance of the visit.

"The selection (of target buildings) did not take place in advance, it took place just when we arrived, so all of Parchin was available," former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen, who led the visits, told the Christian Science Monitor last April. "When we drove there and arrived, we told them which building."

However, an ISIS report issued in advance of the 2005 inspections and an unreleased IAEA assessment outlined developments at Parchin that concerned the agency, David Albright, who heads the think tank, told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview.

Publicizing locations of agency interest in advance of a visit could make Iran vulnerable to charges of sanitization if the later inspection turns up no incriminating evidence, Heinonen said to the Monitor last year.

Separately, the agency's mandate to inspect Parchin has been subject to dispute both by Tehran and certain legal experts. Daniel Joyner, a nuclear law expert at the University of Alabama, has questioned the agency's authority to keep watch on assets not declared by Iran.

That interpretation prompted a counterargument by Albright, Heinonen and Arizona State University academic Orde Kittrie.

In the early 1990s, the discovery of clandestine nuclear programs in Iraq and North Korea prompted the IAEA Technical Secretariat and the agency's 35-nation governing board to reconsider "the IAEA’s previous focus on declared nuclear material," the analysts wrote. The agency leadership determined, "based on the existing legal authority reflected in INFCIRC/153, the IAEA not only had the right, but the obligation, to determine both the correctness and the completeness of a country's declarations."

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