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Nuclear Concealment Suspected at Iranian Military Base

Iran’s Parchin military complex, shown in a 2004 satellite image. New reconnaissance imagery suggests the Middle Eastern nation is attempting to hide evidence that it conducted trials of a nuclear-weapon trigger at the site, diplomats said on Wednesday (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe). Iran’s Parchin military complex, shown in a 2004 satellite image. New reconnaissance imagery suggests the Middle Eastern nation is attempting to hide evidence that it conducted trials of a nuclear-weapon trigger at the site, diplomats said on Wednesday (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe).

Pictures taken from space suggest Iran's Parchin installation is hosting automobiles capable of transferring soil away from the site, a development certain envoys described as a sign that the Middle Eastern nation is trying to remove atomic particles potentially produced in trials of a mechanism for initiating nuclear-bomb detonations, the Associated Press reported on Thursday (see GSN, March 8).

The International Atomic Energy Agency in November reported indications that Iran intended to use the armed forces site for conducting explosive detonations relevant to a potential nuclear-weapon development effort (see GSN, Nov. 9, 2011). Data obtained from two diplomatic officials ties the possible explosives operations to a separate effort to a build a "neutron initiator," according to AP (see GSN, May 25, 2011).

"If placed in the center of a nuclear core of an implosion-type nuclear device and compressed, [a neutron initiator] could produce a burst of neutrons suitable for initiating a fission chain reaction," the U.N. nuclear watchdog said in its November assessment. The report includes an unidentified IAEA member nation's allegation that Iran might have pursued development of such a system, but the document does not specifically tie any such effort to the Parchin base.

The reconnaissance imagery suggests Iran is seeking to conceal previous trials of a neutron initiator, the two diplomatic officials said. An additional envoy did not back the assertion, but said any effort to build such a component would have no application other than nuclear-bomb development.

Iran, which insists its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful, this week tentatively offered to permit U.N. auditors to inspect the Parchin facility after denying access to high-level IAEA teams on two visits to the country this year.

The U.N. organization is frequently receiving new pictures of the site from member nations, according one of the first two officials. Each of the three envoys is an atomic specialist affiliated with the agency.

Iran has carried out various studies with bomb applications, but a neutron-initiator operation would fall within a minority to incorporate actual atomic ingredients. For that reason, it would bolster global concerns over Tehran's nuclear intentions, according to AP.

Efforts involving the component took place from 2003 to 2010, according to one source from an IAEA participant government with high-quality data on the Persian Gulf regional power. A second insider, though, said the trials took place around 2003 and might have ended in failure.

Intelligence insiders in the United States for the most part still back a 2007 U.S. finding that Iran had ended its formal nuclear-bomb development effort in 2003.

One of six envoys who discussed the images with AP said his government was not convinced they point to a concealment effort, while two in the group were nearly fully persuaded that such an attempt is taking place (George Jahn, Associated Press I/ABC News, March 8).

An uidentified Israeli government source said the photographs "reinforce what Israel has been saying all along ... the Iranian nuclear program is not benign" (Daniella Cheslow, Associated Press II/Boston Globe, March 8).

The U.N. nuclear watchdog would require data in addition to the pictures to reach any firm determinations, David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, told CNN (CNN I, March 8).

The five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany in a collective message on Thursday pressed Iran "to fulfill its undertaking to grant access to Parchin," Reuters reported.

The nations also expressed "regret" in the document issued at this week's IAEA board meeting over Iran's accelerated uranium refinement efforts. The enrichment process can generate civilian fuel as well as bomb material (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters I, Feb. 8).

"We call on Iran to enter, without preconditions, into a sustained process of serious dialogue, which will produce concrete results," CNN quoted the message as saying. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday said the six powers -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- had decided to join new discussions with Iran over the Middle Eastern nation's nuclear program.

"We reaffirm that our overall goal remains a comprehensive negotiated, long-term solution, on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach, which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program consistent" with the global nonproliferation regime, according to the statement (CNN I).

Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general, on Wednesday suggested Iran was not being fully forthcoming over its atomic efforts, CNN reported.

"Iran is not telling us everything. That is my impression. We are asking Iran to engage with us proactively, and Iran has a case to answer," he said.

Amano said his agency is regularly inspecting specific Iranian atomic sites.

"For these facilities and activities, I can tell that they are in peaceful purpose," he said. "But there are also, there may be other facilities which are not declared, and we have the indication or information that Iran has engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices" (Matthew Chance, CNN II, March 8).

Alterations sought by Iran to proposed IAEA parameters for investigating the country's nuclear activities would complicate efforts to assess the possible past or present existence of an Iranian nuclear-weapon preparation initiative, the Arms Control Association in Washington said in an analysis on Wednesday (Arms Control Association release, March 7).

Washington would "demand" in the planned multilateral discussions "that Iran live up to its international obligations -- that it provide verifiable assurances it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Wednesday.

The Obama administration was "clear-eyed" in its strategy, taking into account Iran's refusal to address its atomic activities in past discussions, Agence France-Presse quoted Carney as saying. Iranian officials most recently met with representatives from the six powers on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving concerns about Iranian atomic operations (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011).

"We will not relent in our efforts through sanctions and other measures to isolate and pressure Iran," the official said. "Actions are what matter here, and we will judge Iran by its actions" (Agence France-Presse I/Google News, March 7).

A top Israeli official on Wednesday voiced support for the pending discussions, but said "we must prepare for their failure," AFP reported.

"If there is not a military alternative, they will not renounce their nuclear program," Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said (Agence France-Presse II/Now Lebanon, March 7).

President Obama has directed U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to consult with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on a potential transfer to Israel of fuel carrier planes and additional GBU-28 "bunker-buster" weapons, Haaretz quoted a high-level U.S. government insider as saying on Tuesday (Barak Ravid, Haaretz, March 6).

An Israeli government source backed reports that his country had called for the equipment, Reuters reported

"Such a request was made" roughly when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the U.S. capital this week, the insider said.

Some news sources said Washington had offered the systems in exchange for an Israeli pledge not to employ armed force against Iran in 2012, but the source dismissed the claim as "unrealistic" (Reuters II, March 8).

Under an agreement between Obama and Netanyahu, Washington would not rule out potential strikes aimed at curbing Iran's atomic efforts in exchange for an Israeli promise not to carry out its own strike, the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said.

The Israeli leader “got that assurance,” the London Independent quoted IISS head John Chipman as saying.

Analysts with the organization suggested neither power would launch an attack before 2013 (Mary Dejevsky, London Independent, March 7).

Prominent voices within Israel have warned Netanyahu against failing to consult with Washington over potential strikes against Iranian atomic assets, AP reported. Revenge attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories would probably result from such action, and ongoing missile attacks on the Israeli capital could be another consequence, according to the news agency.

“This is not a Jewish problem,” said Shaul Mofaz, a former top Israeli official who now heads the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the country's legislature. “It is a strategic problem facing the whole world.”

Mofaz and former Israeli armed forces head Gen. Dan Halutz took issue with the Israeli prime minister's invocation of the Holocaust in discussing the atomic danger pose by Iran.

“We are not kings of the world,” Halutz added. “We should remember who we are.”

Former Israeli intelligence head Meir Dagan last year said it would be "stupid" to launch an armed attack on Iranian atomic facilities (see GSN, May 9, 2011; Dan Perry, Associated Press III/Daily Star, March 8).

A high-level armed forces intelligence official in Israel said it remains unclear how and whether an attack on Iran would take place, McClatchy Newspapers reported on Wednesday (Sheera Frenkel, McClatchy Newspapers/Miami Herald, March 7).

Elsewhere, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday commended President Obama's statements minimizing calls for a rapid attack on Iran, AFP reported

"This talk is good talk and shows an exit from illusion," Khamenei said in a statement carried by his website.

"But the U.S. president continued saying that he wants to make the Iranian people kneel through sanctions, this part of this speech shows the continuation of illusion on this issue," he said (Farhad Pouladi, Agence France-Presse III/Google News, March 8).

NTI Analysis

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