WASHINGTON -- New satellite images indicate Iran has pressed forward with building activities at a military base thought to have hosted experiments relevant to nuclear weapons development, a think tank in Washington said on Friday.
The Jan. 17 pictures suggest Tehran has finished building a new structure at the location of a demolished building adjacent to the suspected housing for a tank suited for nuclear-related explosives tests at the Parchin installation.
It also appears to have laid paving for another structure close to the location of a second destroyed facility, according to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security. The "size and layout of the excavation" suggest the incomplete structure, once finished, would not match the characteristics of the second demolished site, ISIS analysts wrote in their report.
Intelligence provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency by other governments suggests the Parchin site about a decade ago might have hosted the detonation tank as well as development of a "neutron initiator" for activating atomic blasts. Pictures taken of the base from space in past months suggest Iran has moved soil, demolished and assembled new structures, and placed temporary covering over sensitive areas, indicating a possible effort to conceal evidence of incriminating past activities at the site, according to previous ISIS assessments.
Iran appeared to dismantle buildings near the suspected tank housing from April to August, and it apparently started reconstruction activities in September or November, according to the group.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog failed to win access to the Parchin facility during a Jan. 16-17 meeting with Iran, which rejected several similar requests by the organization last year. Tehran defends its nuclear program as a purely nonmilitary endeavor and denies the installation near Tehran ever hosted activities concerning the atomic effort. Another round of talks is scheduled for Feb. 13.
Workers appeared to be finishing assembly of a fence near the purported tank facility, the document says, adding the barrier runs farther to the south and nearer to facilities in the area's western section than one torn down earlier.
"Earth piles initially visible in early November 2012 are still visible in the northern part of the site as are heavy machinery and materials indicating the likelihood of further construction," last week's analysis adds. "There is also earth displacement nearby the two support buildings located just south of the suspected chamber building although at this stage it is impossible to determine its origin."
The analysis says the U.N. agency should have acted to visit Parchin around a year ago -- before the start of remediation operations -- by invoking its authority to conduct a "special inspection" of any location in a country submitting to IAEA monitoring. Iran could rebuff the demand, but seeking such an audit would allow the agency to pursue access to sensitive areas of the base that Tehran could place off limits under a potential deal to open Parchin to scrutiny, the document notes.
“The IAEA needs to be a little more aggressive," ISIS head David Albright told Global Security Newswire on Monday. "If the site’s important for them to go to, they should be willing to argue that a special inspection is needed because Iran has tried to deceive them so many times.”
Agency officials revealed what parts of the base were of interest to them before visiting the site in 2005, enabling Iran to limit access and “keep them from doing a more thorough investigation,” Albright said in a telephone interview. Rejecting a request for a special inspection would place Tehran in violation of its safeguards agreement with the agency, he noted.
The ISIS assessment says the agency's best present option is to formally report the impasse on the Parchin base and a broader stalled nuclear investigation to its governing board. The 35-nation group would ideally respond by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, it states.
An upcoming vote to appoint IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano to a second term might be behind the agency's effort to avoid direct confrontation with Iran, one issue expert suggested. Amano is running unopposed for the office, but his election in 2009 faced considerable resistance from developing countries that prioritized the spread of peaceful nuclear technology over the nonproliferation interests favored by industrialized nations.
The U.N. watchdog "has a mandate" and "doesn’t need an agreement" to visit suspect sites, but unanimous backing of Amano would be "a shot in the arm" to bolster agency credibility among developing nations, said Mark Hibbs, a nuclear specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Members of the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement have largely rallied around Iran's right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities, Hibbs noted in a Jan. 18 interview.