Elephant Not in the Room: Whither the Mythological Parchin Explosion Chamber?

Another great guest post by friend of ACL, Dr. Yousaf Butt, on the technical implications of the findings of the IAEA when Agency inspectors finally visited the site at Parchin that they’ve been angling to visit for years.


Elephant Not in the Room: Whither the Mythological Parchin Explosion Chamber?

By: Yousaf Butt

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Many reporters and non-proliferation experts have been busy lately arguing over the protocols used for taking samples at the Parchin military site in Iran. They may have missed the elephant in the room. This might be excusable since there is no elephant in the room: the enormous explosion chamber that was supposed to be there was not seen by the IAEA in their latest visit to their latest building of interest at Parchin.

As all hardcore Parchin fans know, the IAEA had visited the site twice before and also found nothing suspicious in – or even around – the other buildings they had previously been interested in. Three strikes and you’re out? Well, not quite: one ought to wait for the results of the sampling before passing final judgment on whether nuclear materials were used at Parchin and whether possible safeguards violations may have occurred.

However, it seems fairly clear by now that the intel supplied to the IAEA regarding the chamber was flawed. Regardless of whether the sampling results end up being positive or not, there is no chamber at Parchin at any of the multiple locations deduced from the intel fed to the Agency by some unknown third-party.

Could the huge chamber have been cut-up and sneaked out as some people at a DC-based NGO have insisted? As Robert Kelley – a former head of the DoE Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis Air Force Base and a former IAEA inspections director – explains in a recent SIPRI release, the answer is a firm “No” — because of continuous satellite monitoring:

“A removal operation would be obvious to an observer using panchromatic satellite imaging, supplemented by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and many forms of multi-spectral imaging.”

To those of us who have been examining the scientific quality of some of the allegations against Iran the non-existence of the mythological chamber has not come as a big surprise: it may well be that the same country that fed the bogus and amateurishly-flawed Associated Press graphs to the IAEA, also fed the now-debunked Parchin chamber story.

As Robert Kelley recaps, there were multiple failures of competence in the 2011 IAEA Annex report that made the Parchin allegations in the first place. Most glaringly, there is no need for an explosion chamber if the aim of the chamber was nuclear-weapons related in the first place: “Claims about the purpose of the alleged experiments at Parchin are not consistent with the logic of nuclear weapons design and testing.”

Apart from the latest Parchin report, non-proliferation experts and reporters would be well-advised to do their due-diligence and read the compendium of expert SIPRI reports written by Robert Kelley and his colleague Tariq Rauf – the former Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination at the IAEA.

A puzzling question persists, however: If the chamber never existed and there’s no big nefarious deal at Parchin why then were the Iranians so insistent to lead the latest swipe-sampling inspections themselves? It’s uncertain of course, but it may be related to the reports that the IAEA mishandled the Syria investigation and so Iran perhaps wanted to ensure that that is not repeated at Parchin.

The upshot of all this is that the IAEA should stick to doing nuclear materials accountancy and not delve into nuclear weaponization investigations, until its mandate and expertise is broadened to include such activities.


Panel on the Iran nuclear deal

Our followers in London and the UK will be interested in this panel on the Iran nuclear deal that will take place at the University of Westminster in London on 17 November. As you know, on 14 July 2015 the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed by Iran, the P5+1 and the European Union was announced. Under the framework, Iran will substantially reduce its stockpiles of nuclear material, limit its future production of nuclear materials, and accept the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. In return, the P5+1 and the UN Security Council will lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran. But what legal obligations does the deal contain? How will we ensure that Iran is complying with them? Does the deal strengthen international peace and security or is it rather a threat to it? And why have other nations not faced as much scrutiny as Iran? The panel discussion will address these and other important questions from a legal, political and diplomatic perspective.

Speakers include, in addition to our own Dan Joyner, Sir Richard Dalton (British Ambassador to Iran 2002-2006; Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House; President, British Iranian Chamber of Commerce) and Ambassador Peter Jenkins, CMG (Partner, the Ambassador Partnership).

To register, please click here.



Innocence Slaughtered – Forthcoming book

The introduction of chemical warfare to the battlefield on 22 April 1915 changed the face of total warfare. Not only did it bring science to combat, it was both the product of societal transformation and a shaper of the 20th century societies.

This collaborative work investigates the unfolding catastrophe that the unleashing of chlorine against the Allied positions meant for individual soldiers and civilians. It describes the hesitation on the German side about the effectiveness, and hence impact on combat operations of the weapon whilst reflecting on the lack of Allied response to the many intelligence pointers that something significant was afoot.

Innocence Slaughtered cover

It goes on to describe the massive transformation that societies were undergoing as a consequence of industrialisation, science and technology, and the impact these trends were to have on the emergence of what we know today as ‘total war’. Chemical warfare pitted the brightest minds from the various belligerents against each other and in some ways this competition revealed early thinking about intellectual superiority that was to define the decades after the Armistice. The ability to survive in a chemically contaminated environment was proof of a higher level of achievement. In simple terms, chemical defence equalled survival of the fittest.

  • Edited by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders
  • Introduction by Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)
  • To be published in December 2015

Table of Contents

  • Ahmet Üzümcü (Director-General Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons): Preface
  • Jean Pascal Zanders: Introduction
  • Jean Pascal Zanders: The Road to The Hague
  • Olivier Lepick: Towards total war: Langemarck, 22 April 1915
  • Luc Vandeweyer: The Belgian Army and the gas attack on 22 April 1915
  • Dominiek Dendooven: 22 April 1915 – Eyewitness accounts of the first gas attack
  • Julian Putkowski: Toxic Shock: The British Army’s reaction to German poison gas during the Second Battle of Ypres
  • David Omissi: The Indian Army at the Second Battle of Ypres
  • Bert Heyvaert: Phosgene in the Ypres Salient: 19 December 1915
  • Gerard Oram: A War on Terror: Gas, British morale, and reporting the war in Wales
  • Wolfgang Wietzker: Gas Warfare in 1915 and the German press
  • Peter van den Dungen: Civil Resistance to chemical warfare in the 1st World War
  • Leo van Bergen and Maartje Abbenhuis: Man-monkey, monkey-man: Neutrality and the discussions about the ‘inhumanity’ of poison gas in the Netherlands and International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Jean Pascal Zanders: The road to Geneva

Publisher’s information

Becoming the largest weapon-control treaty

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has just announced the accession of Angola to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The country deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General on 16 September, which means that it will become a party to the CWC 30 days later, that is, 16 October.

Angola will thus be the 192nd state to join the OPCW. No other treaty limiting possession or use of a particular type of weaponry can boast that many parties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has 191; the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) 173.

Middle East – The hard nut

According to the OPCW statement, only four states now remain outside the treaty: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan.

North Korea presents the simplest problem. There is no diplomatic interaction at all, so expectations that Pyongyang will join the CWC any time soon are as good as zero.

Some optimism exists about South Sudan. Efforts are underway to secure succession (Sudan has been a party since June 1999) as part of a broader package that includes offers of assistance to rebuild the war-torn state. Having said that, the date of OPCW membership keeps getting pushed back into a less definite future in parallel with the floundering efforts to bring peace to the country.

Egypt remains of course obsessed by Israel’s nuclear weapons, while Israel continues to fail to see any benefits in collective security in its pursuit of a peace-first policy in a region that seems to be descending ever further into violence and instability. The fact of the matter is that neither country would lose an iota of national security by joining the CWC; quite on the contrary. Symbolism can be a powerful demotivator …

And what about Palestine?

Among the NPT’s membership is the State of Palestine, which acceded to the treaty as the 191st party in February 2015. It deposited its instrument of accession in London and Moscow (but not Washington). On 10 September the UN General Assembly voted to fly the Palestinian flag outside the UN building—together with that of another non-member observer state maintaining a permanent observer mission at the UN Headquarters, the Holy See.

OPCW statements do not list this Palestine in its statements on universality. It should be noted that UN membership is not a precondition for becoming a party to the CWC. Article XX speaks about accession of ‘any state’; Article XXIII designates the UN Secretary-General as depository and provides no grounds for rejecting any state. The Vatican joined the CWC in June 1999.

As far as I know, Palestinian authorities have not made any statements about acceding to the CWC. It may be that some low-level contacts are taking place between the OPCW and the Palestinian Mission to the EU in Brussels, but if this is the case, it is definitely not yet causing any ripples.

Is there an abundance of caution as a consequence of US laws that defund UN agencies that accept Palestine as a full member, thereby seemingly legitimising its quest for full statehood? While it is true the the USA is the single biggest contributor to the OPCW budget, reality is that (1) the OPCW is not a UN agency, and (2) as noted above, the CWC is not an invitation-only club. Unlike, for example, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), OPCW members do not get to vote on the accession of another state.

So, for the OPCW, four or five more countries before full universality, that’s the question!

Amano Visits Parchin

Just a quick post to note that IAEA DG Amano announced on Sunday that he has personally visited the Parchin facility, including the building that has been the subject of so much speculation regarding it’s alleged use as a testing space for nuclear explosive initiators.   In a statement about his visit, he said that he and his team were allowed into the building, and that environmental tests were performed in collaboration with Iranian technicians.  This was the first time that the IAEA had visited this particular building, though it had visited the Parchin facility twice previously.

The political significance of the DG’s visit to this part of the Parchin facility is huge. It is almost certainly supposed to represent the capstone being placed upon the IAEA’s investigation of the site and it’s role in the agency’s PMD inquiry.  And as the Parchin facility has been the most visible and specific part of the agency’s PMD allegations against Iran since the DG’s November 2011 report, this visit appears highly politically symbolic in also marking the beginning of the end of the IAEA’s PMD inquiry as a whole.  The JCPOA, of course, provides that the DG must submit a report on the PMD issue to the IAEA BOG by December 15, 2015, upon receipt of which the BOG is supposed to act “with a view to closing the issue.”  So the DG’s visit to Parchin would seem to be a communication that everything is moving forward toward this outcome, as planned.

I and others have written a lot about the PMD issue, and the Parchin facility specifically, on this blog over the past few years.  I’ve argued all along that the PMD issue was both inappropriate as a subject for the IAEA to be investigating, and overblown in the significance attached to it by many observers (e.g. David Albright, Mark Hibbs).  It has been very gratifying to me over the past year or so to see that my view of the PMD issue – i.e. that it should be pragmatically dealt with and the IAEA investigation expeditiously ended – has been the view adopted by the P5+1 negotiators, and eventually by the IAEA itself.  This outcome will certainly not satisfy those who pushed so hard for Iran to be required to completely capitulate and confess every detail of its nuclear research programs.  But it is the right outcome of an issue that should never have been made into an issue by the IAEA in the first place, and which has demonstrated serious problems regarding the IAEA’s own understanding of its legal mandate, and its utilization of third-party intelligence information.

I will be very pleased to see the PMD issue put to rest, so that the more meaningful and productive issues of forward-looking safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program can be focused on.

Reviewing Parchin

I’m very pleased to again host a guest post by Dr. Yousaf Butt.  I turn to Yousaf and a few other highly qualified friends when there is an issue involving scientific or technical analysis, on which I have no business commenting.  I’ve been following the recent back and forth on Twitter and other places that Yousaf alludes to in this piece, and I understand the import of it, but I appreciate very much his willingness to explain it in more detail to us non-technical folks.

Reviewing Parchin

By: Dr. Yousaf Butt

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific advisor to the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Given some of the exchanges taking place last week, the UN might be concerned about the possibility of the Parchin military complex in Iran triggering an all-out rhetorical war in the non-proliferation community.

Parchin is, of course, the military site in Iran where conventional explosives testing possibly relevant to nuclear weapons research is alleged to have taken place, more than a decade ago.

According to information reportedly leaked by some elements within the US intelligence community, Iran may be attempting to “clean up the site ahead of planned inspections by the IAEA.”

But can Iran really do that by carrying out paving or construction at the site as some commentators have alleged for years? If future IAEA inspections reveal nothing of concern at the site – as past IAEA inspections there did – does this mean Iran succeeded in its alleged sanitization? Or could it be that the IAEA is targeting the wrong building again – like it appears to have done two times in 2005? Or would it simply mean there is no evidence to support the allegations?

Recently, a lot has been made about the location of parked vehicles at Parchin. Should one care where on the site Iran parks cars and bulldozers?

To help answer such questions, here are some simple technical guidelines and some background information:

1. In a case like Parchin – where the IAEA says there is a known building of interest – sampling is best done indoors within that building using swipe samples. External (outdoors) sampling can complement this but is of less intrinsic interest.

2. Tehran cannot sanitize the inside of buildings using paving or bulldozers outside the building. Public satellite imagery released to-date does not tell us whether Tehran has attempted sanitization within the building(s) of interest.

3. In any case, complete sanitization within buildings where work with nuclear materials has taken place is almost impossible to accomplish. The Agency itself states:

Any nuclear process … will also produce particulate materials with particle dimensions in the 0.1 [to] 10 micrometer range. Such small particles are believed to be quite mobile and will travel several meters from their point of origin due to air currents or human activity. This mobility also makes it extremely difficult to clean up an area to such an extent that no particles remain available for swipe sampling. [emphasis added]

4. The location where vehicles are parked, absent other information, is not indicative of very much.

5. The IAEA has visited Parchin twice before and found nothing of concern, possibly because they were targeting the wrong building(s) before, or because there is no actual evidence of nuclear-materials related research at Parchin. The IAEA then stated:

The Agency was given free access to those buildings and their surroundings and was allowed to take environmental samples, the results of which did not indicate the presence of nuclear material, nor did the Agency see any relevant dual use equipment or materials in the locations visited.

If the IAEA happened to be targeting the wrong buildings before, it could also be targeting the wrong building(s) now. The intel the Agency was/is relying on for its allegations appears to be not very solid. Hopefully, the protocol worked out between Iran and the IAEA at the conclusion of the JCPOA provides a framework to reach a quick final conclusion.

6. The IAEA had the possibility to access the current building of interest in 2005 but did not go there then, by choice. Olli Heinonen was head of IAEA safeguards at the time and led the inspections – he described the methodology of choosing which buildings to inspect:

At the time, it[Parchin] was divided into four geographical sectors by the Iranians. Using satellite and other data, inspectors were allowed by the Iranians to choose any sector, and then to visit any building inside that sector. Those 2005 inspections included more than five buildings each, and soil and environmental sampling. They yielded nothing suspicious, but did not include the building now of interest to the IAEA. The selection [of target buildings] did not take place in advance, it took place just when we arrived, so all of Parchin was available….When we drove there and arrived, we told them which building. [emphasis added]

7. Dr. El Baradei who was head of the IAEA when the Parchin and the “Alleged Studies” (now known as PMD) file first surfaced had reservations about the quality of the intel involved, stating: “The IAEA is not making any judgment at all whether Iran even had weaponisation studies before [2003] because there is a major question of authenticity of the documents.” [emphasis added]

To sum up: the most important place to take swipe samples would be on the inside of the building(s) of interest. Construction and paving work outside or the locations of parked vehicles is not of great intrinsic importance, absent other information.

One hopes that the IAEA is indeed targeting the correct building(s) now so that a positive or negative swipe result from inside the building(s) will settle the case quickly and definitively. Incidentally, a negative result would not mean that Iran managed to sanitize the site because the most important sampling would be done indoors where it is almost impossible to get rid of evidence of nuclear materials use.

ABA Journal Seeking Nominations for this Year’s Blawg 100

I’m getting around to this a little bit late this year. My apologies for that. The ABA Journal’s request for nominations can be found here.

If a few of you readers wouldn’t mind to nominate ACL, I’d be grateful. I know it’s not a big deal in the broad scheme of things, but it’s been a really nice validation of our work on the blog the past two years to be included on the list.


Thanks in advance to everyone who takes the time.


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