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Iranian Base "Activities" Raise Stakes in Standoff With U.N. Auditors

International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts, shown last week, on Wednesday reportedly said "activities" taking place at an Iranian military installation have added urgency to his organization's calls for access to the site (AP Photo/Ronald Zak). International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts, shown last week, on Wednesday reportedly said "activities" taking place at an Iranian military installation have added urgency to his organization's calls for access to the site (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).

"Activities" now under way at at Iran's Parchin base intensify the pressing nature of a push by U.N. auditors to gain access to the facility, the International Atomic Energy Agency's top inspections official told diplomats on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 29).

Senior agency officials were denied access to the armed forces installation during two recent trips to Iran aimed at addressing indications of possible nuclear-bomb development activities in the Middle Eastern nation, which insists its atomic efforts are strictly peaceful. A November report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog noted indications that Iran had assembled a tank at the Parchin facility for performing explosive detonations serving as "strong indicators of possible weapon development," Reuters reported.

Agency safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts said his organization has monitored pictures taken of the site from space, envoys told Reuters. "[There] may be some ongoing activities at Parchin which add urgency to why we want to go," he said in private remarks recounted by one diplomatic official.

It remained uncertain if the U.N. nuclear agency believed Iran could be seeking to hide material at the site before potentially allowing an international audit to move forward.

"Some of the reports we have heard about possible sanitation" of the site are "very concerning," a Western diplomat said. "It is very clear that Iran doesn't want the agency to go to Parchin because it has something to hide" (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, Feb. 29).

The 180-minute presentation by Nackaerts included no photographs proving beyond a doubt that a concealment effort was under way at Parchin, Agence France-Presse quoted envoys as saying.

"One has to be concerned if they are actually doing any cleanup there, and I don't know that for certain," said a high-level Western delegate to the U.N. agency.

A separate envoy added: "I do not get the sense that there is anything to indicate that that is definitely happening."

An informed high-level insider last week said the agency possessed "no information on any cleanup. We have been watching the site with satellite images and we couldn't spot any cleaning up" (Agence France-Presse I/Times of India, March 1).

Iranian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh said his country had not barred IAEA officials from the facility during discussions with the Vienna, Austria-based organization, Reuters reported.

"We are not ruling out access," Soltanieh told journalists, adding Tehran could make the site available upon potentially reaching a deal on methods for responding to additional agency concerns (Dahl, Reuters I).

Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Fereidoun Abbasi on Wednesday said Tehran is "willing to continue talks with the IAEA and brief them on our nuclear programs but there is no obligation for us to answer whatever they ask," Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.

Iran has no obligation to provide auditors access to any of its facilities, he added in an interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency (Deutsche Presse-Agentur/Monsters and Critics, Feb. 29).

In Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday joined U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey for a meeting that addressed the Iranian nuclear standoff, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

The talks at the Pentagon touched on "the U.S.-Israel defense relationship and a range of regional issues including Syria, Iran and the ongoing changes in the Middle East," Defense Department spokesman George Little said.

The meeting occurred ahead of a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and amid increasing speculation that Jerusalem is preparing to use armed force to disable Iran's atomic infrastructure (Xinhua News Agency/China Daily, March 1).

The United States' "bunker-buster" weapons could deal lasting harm to uranium enrichment technology and passageways at Iran's underground Qum facility, likely delaying the nation's nuclear progress by years even if a potential attack did not affect the site's most guarded components, the Washington Post on Wednesday quoted government sources as saying.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog in January confirmed Iran to be refining 20-percent uranium at the hardened complex (see GSN, Feb. 7). The higher-enriched material enables the nation to potentially more quickly produce nuclear-weapon fuel, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent; Tehran has denied international assertions that it harbors nuclear-weapon ambitions and insists the material is intended for a medical isotope production reactor (Joby Warrick, Washington Post, Feb. 29).

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz on Wednesday avoided specifying if hardened or hidden Iranian atomic sites are vulnerable to armaments held by the United States, AFP reported (see GSN, Nov. 16, 2011).

"We have an operational capability and you wouldn't want to be there when we used it," Schwartz said in reference to his country's 30,000 pound-Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

"Not to say that we can't continue to make improvements and we are," he said. "The bottom line is we have a capability but we're not sitting on our hands, we'll continue to improve it over time" (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Feb. 29).

White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged on Wednesday that "any military action in that region threatens greater instability in the region," AFP reported. Iran "borders both Afghanistan and Iraq," he noted. "We have civilian personnel in Iraq. We have military personnel and well as civilians in Afghanistan" (Agence France-Presse III/Google News, Feb. 29).

Tehran is likely to respond to an Israeli assault by firing missiles at its longtime foe and carrying out militant-level strikes on U.S. assets in other nations,  the New York Times reported, citing U.S. officials.

"Once military strikes and counterstrikes begin, you are on the tiger's back," said former U.S. national security official Ray Takeyh. "And when on the tiger's back, you cannot always pick the place to dismount" (New York Times I, Feb. 29).

While U.S. intelligence officials have recently said they believe Iranian leaders have not actually decided to build a nuclear weapon, France, Germany and the United Kingdom take a harder stand on the matter, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. That lack of consensus could complicate efforts to resolve the atomic standoff.

The Obama administration has not formally rejected the conclusion of a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran gave up specific nuclear-weapon work in 2003. The International Atomic Energy Agency, in some newer documents, has said that select operations "continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing." The United Kingdom supports that statement, one British official said.

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond in January said his "working assumption is that they are working flat out" to develop an atomic armament (George Jahn, Associated Press/Google News, Feb. 29).

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