Last summer during the intense Congressional Hearings on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Rep. Michael Pompeo (R-KS) went to Vienna to pay a visit to Yukio Amano, Director General of UN Nuclear Watchdog agency, the IAEA. They came back with disturbing revelations about so-called secret deals by the Obama Administration regarding inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Especially concerning the Parchin military research site located 19 miles southeast of Tehran. Parchin had been the suspected site of so-called Prior Military Development of nuclear triggers that had allegedly ceased in 2005. In September 2015, Sen. Cotton and Rep. Pompeo accused IAEA chief Amano of misleading the Congress to ensure passage of JCPOA when Iran self collected samples at the Parchin test site. Now there is evidence that IAEA test environmental samples taken last fall at the Parchin site revealed particles of “chemically man made uranium.”
In October 2014, during negotiations of the P5+1 JCPOA there was a blast at the Parchin test site. We wrote in an NER/Iconoclast blog post, “Washington-based Nuclear Watchdog Confirms Blast at Parchin Nuclear Trigger Test Site in Iran.”
The blast there occurred on Sunday night local time. It produced a glare that could be seen 13 kilometers (approximately 10 miles) distant, as well as blew out windows. The Iranian regime’s IRNA and opposition Samha news agencies reported on the blast at Parchin that killed two workers. The Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released evidence of damage at the Parchin test site based on satellite imagery, “Finding the Site of the Alleged Explosion at the Parchin Military Complex”. Their analysis found:
After analyzing the sections of the Parchin military complex visible in satellite imagery, ISIS believes that one site located in the southern section of the complex could be the possible location of the explosion. This site is close to a series of bunkers, indicating that it could serve as a support area for the activities taking place there. Several signatures that coincide with those expected from an explosion site are visible here. Two buildings that were present in August 2014 are no longer there, while a third building appears to be severely damaged. In total at least six buildings appear damaged or destroyed. Several trucks are present at the site. The shape and size of these trucks is consistent with those of either fire or debris removal trucks. The irregular line and color of the vegetation seems to indicate that some unexpected activity took place (possibly a fire, explosion, scattering of debris etc.). Finally, grey debris is visible at the center of the potential explosion area and is also scattered into the surrounding vegetation.
It was reported that the imagery shows that the damage is consistent with an attack against bunkers and that the locality is adjacent to another installation where work was being conducted that involves controlled detonation of fuses intended to serve as triggers for nuclear devices.
However, it is important to note that there is no evidence of either an attack or nuclear weapon-related activities at this specific site. There may be confusion over alleged high explosive nuclear weapon-related activities at another site at Parchin that occurred prior to 2004.
Following the release of the JCPOA on July 15, 2015, we wrote in an NER article, The Iran Nuclear Deal – a Pandora’s Box.
The devil is in both the details of the JCPOA and what was excluded. Especially concerning was the matter of satisfying the IAEA’s complaint about Iran’s alleged non-compliance with requests for information on prior military nuclear developments (PMD). For example the development of explosive triggers at the Parchin research facility. Ayatollah Khamenei basically nixed any IAEA inspections of facilities and programs under the country’s IRGC control. At first denied by the Obama Administration, so-called ‘secret’ side deals between the IAEA and the Islamic Republic were justified because that was the protocol under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. A Wall Street Journal report on July 27, 2015 provided assessments by Congressional lawmakers who were briefed on these arrangements concluded that the IAEA would not conclusively discover the extent of Iran’s PMD. The Administration contested that would not stand in the way of verifying future commitments.
On Monday, June 20, 2016, the predictable consequences of the Islamic Regime’s activities at the Parchin military test site were revealed in the second report since January 15, 2016 that lifted sanctions. ISIS made the following assessment of a May 26, 2016 IAEA report, “Parchin: Will the IAEA Verify the Absence of Nuclear Weapons Activities in Iran?
ISIS noted this background:
On May 27, 2016, the IAEA released its second report on Iran’s compliance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2231 (2015), which codified into international law the JCPOA. The report states that the IAEA conducted “complementary accesses under the Additional Protocol to sites and other locations in Iran.” It is not specific about which sites the inspectors visited and does not provide any other information pertaining to Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA ban on activities related to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.
In particular, the report does not state whether inspectors visited the Parchin military complex, which is the location of a site linked to high explosive work prior to 2004 related to the development of nuclear weapons. The IAEA was unable to form a conclusion about such nuclear weapons related activities when it visited the site during the fall of 2015 as part of its investigation into Iran’s possible military nuclear activities.
Discovery of “chemically man made uranium”:
Despite the IAEA’s use of a non-standard sampling approach at Parchin, environmental samples taken during the fall visit identified “chemically man-made particles of natural uranium.” However, the IAEA did not make a definitive conclusion about the use of nuclear material at the site.
The IAEA only stated that the number of particles with this specific composition was not enough to assert the use of nuclear material there, and provided no further explanation for their presence in the last two safeguards reports.
An ambiguous sampling result would normally trigger re-sampling at the main building of interest at the site and also at adjacent areas or buildings. However, there is no available information indicating that this re-sampling has taken place.
U.S. officials have stated to our Institute that this finding confirms that uranium was present at the Parchin site and indicates that nuclear weapons related experiments involving the use of uranium were indeed carried out there.
The presence of these particles confirmed the U.S. government’s suspicions that something nefarious happened at the Parchin site. However, the IAEA has not agreed with this conclusion and has appeared hesitant to seek a return visit to Parchin for additional samples.
A senior IAEA official refused to answer a query on May 27, 2016 about whether Parchin or other military sites have been visited since Implementation Day.
The IAEA also refused to state to the media which specific sites were visited under complementary access.
The Wall Street Journal in its report on the IAEA test samples taken at the Parchin test Site in October 2015 noted these comments from a former Obama nuclear negotiator and critics of the JCPOA:
Robert Einhorn, a top Iran negotiator during the Obama administration and now a nuclear expert at the Brookings Institution , said: “The assumption in the [U.S.] government is that these were nuclear weapons-related experiments. The evidence is, technically, inconclusive. But the administration believes it has other information that confirms there was weapons-related activity there.”
The man-made uranium found at Parchin, which has only low-levels of fissionable isotopes, can be used as a substitute for weapons-grade materials in developing atomic bombs, according to nuclear experts. It can also be used as component in a neutron initiator, a triggering device for a nuclear weapon.
Critics of the nuclear deal have cited the presence of uranium at Parchin as evidence the Obama administration didn’t go far enough in demanding Iran answer all questions concerning its past nuclear work before lifting international sanctions in January. They also argue that it is hard to develop a comprehensive monitoring regime without knowing everything Iran has done.
Note what ISIS did in May 2016 to disclose the activities at Parchin and the State Department reaction:
ISIS obtained commercial satellite images of Parchin last month that showed new construction in an area where the explosives testing is believed to have taken place. David Albright, head of the institute, said the construction would likely “further complicate” efforts to investigate the presence of uranium at the military base.
Obama administration officials confirmed the U.S. government has also seen the new construction at Parchin, but doesn’t believe it is related to nuclear work.
“Parchin is an active military facility, and construction there does not necessarily indicate any nuclear-related activity,” said a State Department official. “At this time, we have no information that would lead us to believe that there is undeclared nuclear activity taking place anywhere in Iran.”
Obfuscation and denial of this latest revelation about what may have been going on at Parchin begins to question the principal foreign policy legacy that President Obama will leave behind for his successor to deal with on Iran’s Nuclear intentions. In the meantime, Sen. Cotton and Rep. Pompeo will keep a watching brief for Congressional investigations on the alleged “robust and intrusive inspection system” of the IAEA that the Administration relies on for JCPOA compliance by an untrustworthy Islamic Republic in Tehran.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Nat Sec Daily Brief.