Jay Solomon – Wall Street Journal May 10, 2012
Satellite photographs published by a Washington think tank appear to back United Nations inspectors’ concerns that Iran has been seeking to cleanse a military site south of Tehran suspected of being used for nuclear-weapons work.
The online posting of the images by the Institute for Science and International Security could have a significant impact on a crucial month of diplomacy aimed at containing Tehran’s nuclear program.
Officials from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, are meeting next week in Vienna with Iranian diplomats to try to develop a plan to address concerns that Iran has been seeking to build nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies.
On May 23, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, are meeting in Baghdad with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to discuss the issue.
The IAEA has sought over the past year to visit the military site south of Tehran, called Parchin, in the belief it contains an explosive chamber that may have been used in nuclear-weapons development. IAEA inspectors specifically asked to visit Parchin in February, but were denied access.
In recent weeks, the IAEA’s director-general, Yukiya Amano, has publicly raised concerns that Tehran might be seeking to cover up its past work at Parchin. The Japanese diplomat cited continuing “activities” at Parchin, which Vienna-based diplomats said was a reference to cleansing activities at the facility.
Mr. Amano and the IAEA have not specifically described what they have seen occurring at Parchin.
The satellite images that ISIS posted late Tuesday were taken on April 9 and appear to show items being moved out of a suspected explosive chamber at the Parchin facility.
The photos also appear to show streams of water emanating from the facility, which “raises concerns that Iran may have been washing the inside of the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building,” ISIS said in its report.
The IAEA is concerned that Iran has used the Parchin site to conduct tests simulating the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Such tests would likely use nuclear materials, such as natural uranium, as a surrogate for actual fissile material.
Natural uranium, though, could leave residue in the soil and water around Parchin that could remain detectable for years, nuclear experts said.
The IAEA believes Iran may have conducted explosives testing at Parchin from 2000 to 2003. The agency believes the facility may have been constructed with the assistance of a Russian nuclear-weapons scientist.
ISIS also posted photos of the Parchin site from July 2011 and March 2012, which don’t show the equipment lined up outside or the water streams.
“Satellite images of the building from recent months do not show any similar activity at the site—indicating that such activity is not a regular occurrence,” ISIS said.
The IAEA declined to comment on the photos Wednesday. Iran’s government has repeatedly denied that Parchin was involved in nuclear-weapons development. Iranian officials this week denied that they had taken steps to cleanse the facility.
“They are joking with our nation,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, told Iranian state media, claiming that it was impossible to “wash” away nuclear activities.
Tensions between Iran and the IAEA have been high over the past year. In November, Mr. Amano released the agency’s most detailed report on Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons development and demanded access to key scientists, documents and officials allegedly involved in the program. Tehran has so far refused and claims the evidence against it has been fabricated.
Iranian officials also accused the agency of being complicit in the assassinations of five Iranian nuclear scientists over the past five years, saying their names have appeared in U.N. documents. The IAEA has denied any role in the deaths.
On Tuesday, an IAEA nuclear inspector from South Korea was killed, and a Slovenian injured, in a car accident in central Iran. The agency hasn’t suggested that there were any signs of foul play related to the crash. But Vienna-based diplomats said the incident is likely to feed into “suspicions” between the two sides.