Yousaf Butt – Pretty in Pink: The Parchin Preoccupation ParadoxPosted: January 22, 2013
I’m delighted to welcome friend of the blog, Professor Yousaf Butt, as a guest contributor to ACL. Yousaf is a nuclear physicist, and is currently professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect institutional views of CNS or MIIS. I would also note that Yousaf has a piece just out in Foreign Policy today on how the Parchin obsession may be obstructing progress on the larger Iran issue. DJ
Pretty in Pink: The Parchin Preoccupation Paradox
By: Yousaf Butt
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has just released an important new expert report on Iran’s nuclear program, specifically on the Parchin site of much recent interest to the IAEA. The report is a must-read for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the expertise of the author, Robert Kelley. Kelley is a nuclear engineer and a veteran of over 35 years in the US Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex, most recently at Los Alamos. He managed the centrifuge and plutonium metallurgy programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and was seconded by the US DOE to the IAEA where he served twice as Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq, in 1992 and 2001.
Rarely, if ever, has such a technically qualified person spoken publicly on this important topic.
The SIPRI report dramatically revises the standard narrative in the mainstream western press about what is known about the Parchin site, and what – if anything — needs to be done about it. It also perfectly contextualizes the relative (un)importance of the IAEA gaining access to the site, and what the IAEA — and P5+1 countries — stands to gain or lose in the process of making a mountain out of a molehill on this issue. As Kelley states, “a careful review of the evidence available to date suggests that less has been going on at the site of interest than meets the eye.”
The dispute centers on “the IAEA’s request to visit a large military production complex located at Parchin, near Tehran. The request is part of the agency’s efforts to resolve questions about whether alleged Iranian nuclear activities have what IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has called ‘possible military dimensions’.” Note the “possible” there. Specifically, the IAEA says it has secret information (which it will not share, even with Iran) from a member state’s intelligence agency indicating that Iran may have constructed a large steel chamber in one of the buildings for conducting conventional high explosives experiments—some of which may have involved natural (not enriched) uranium—which could be associated with a secret program to do research on nuclear bombs. As Kelley explains in the SIPRI report the whole scenario is a bit of a stretch from a technical standpoint.
“A chamber such as the one claimed to be in the building is neither necessary nor particularly useful for developing a first-generation nuclear weapon. Such development tests have normally been done outdoors for decades.”
“There are a range of experiments involving explosives and uranium that a country presumably would conduct as part of a nuclear weapon development programme. Most of these are better done in the open or in a tunnel. They include basic research on neutron initiators using very small amounts of explosive and grams of uranium and on the very precise timing of a neutron initiator using a full-scale conventional explosion system and many kilograms of uranium. The alleged chamber at Parchin is too large for the initiator tests and too small for a full-scale explosion. If it exists at all, it is a white elephant.”
And if someone is going to build a chamber like the one alleged in the secret evidence passed to the IAEA, they will want to do experiments and make measurements. They will want to measure things with, for example:
· very high speed optical cameras
· flash X-ray systems (like an X-ray strobe light which gives you one x-ray of implosion in a
very short time)
· neutron detectors
· Various electric timing and pressure detectors.
The collar that is shown in the alleged graphic of the chamber gets in the way of the optical, X-ray and neutron measurements. So it would be better not to have it there at all. The collar of the alleged chamber also means that when the chamber is used up to its design capacity it could well fail on the ends, the entrance door or the windows and cable ports for the measurements.
But before highlighting more of the take-aways from the SIPRI report, let me first briefly mention what other former senior IAEA officials have said about how the IAEA is handling the Parchin issue more broadly.
Firstly, let’s recall that the IAEA has already visited Parchin twice in 2005 and found nothing – although they did not go to the specific area they are now interested in. However, the IAEA could have gone to that area even in 2005 – they simply chose to go to other sites on the military base. As the IAEA report at the time summarized:
“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.”
When the IAEA last went to Parchin, Olli Heinonen was head of IAEA safeguards and led the inspections – the methodology for choosing which buildings to inspect is described in an excellent Christian Science Monitor article which is worth reading in its entirety, but I quote the relevant bits:
“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,” recalls Heinonen, who led those past inspections. “When we drove there and arrived, we told them which building.”
Would the Iranians really have risked exposing some nefarious nuclear weapons-related work at Parchin by making all of Parchin available to the IAEA in 2005?
“Also unusual is how open and specific the IAEA has been about what exactly it wants to see, which could yield doubts about the credibility of any eventual inspection.
“I’m puzzled that the IAEA wants to in this case specify the building in advance, because you end up with this awkward situation,” says Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s head of safeguards until mid-2010.
“First of all, if it gets delayed it can be sanitized. And it’s not very good for Iran. Let’s assume [inspectors] finally get there and they find nothing. People will say, ‘Oh, it’s because Iran has sanitized it,'” says Mr. Heinonen, who is now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “But in reality it may have not been sanitized. Iran is also a loser in that case. I don’t know why [the IAEA] approach it this way, which was not a standard practice…”
As for the typically tendentious reporting on this topic, which almost always casts Iran in a negative light, the words of Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, bear repeating:
“Hans Blix, former chief of the IAEA and later of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, has also expressed surprise at the focus on Parchin, as a military base that inspectors had been to before.
“Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site,” Mr. Blix told Al Jazeera English… “In a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be.”
One of the reasons that Mr. Blix says that is because normally the IAEA does not have the legal authority to inspect undeclared non-nuclear-materials related facilities, in a nation – like Iran — that has not ratified the Additional Protocol. The IAEA can call for “special inspections” but they have not done so. They can also choose arbitration, as specified in the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, but again they have not done that.
In fact, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement between Iran and the IAEA states quite clearly that its “exclusive purpose” is to verify that nuclear material “is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Nothing else – that is it exclusive purpose. It does not cover conventional explosives testing, as suspected at Parchin (according to secret information given by a third-part intelligence agency). The IAEA itself has admitted that “absent some nexus to nuclear material the Agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited.”
Regarding the secret information from an unidentified intelligence agency, it is useful to keep in mind that in the past, forgeries have been passed along to the IAEA. (And, if recent leaks that the IAEA is using mathematically flawed graphs in its case against Iran are to be believed, the IAEA’s case is further weakened.)
So as Hans Blix stated, Iran has been more cooperative than other countries would be in the same situation, and indeed more cooperative than it legally needs to be. It has shown great goodwill by allowing the IAEA a visit to Parchin in 2005. And let’s not forget that in 2004, Brazilian authorities refused to give IAEA inspectors full access to the Resende uranium enrichment facility with nary a peep out of the “world community”.
But coming back to the SIPRI report, a couple more of the highlights:
“The IAEA says that Iran did very complex experiments involving explosives and many fibre-optic detectors and possibly uranium. However, the IAEA says these experiments were not done at Parchin but rather 500 km away at Marivan. In any case, the experiments at Marivan described in great detail by the IAEA would not use uranium.”
And has Iran demolished the building at Parchin that the IAEA wants to visit as some “experts” have claimed?
“No. Some reports implied that Iran had destroyed the building, but this is incorrect. The IAEA claims that five buildings on this site have been demolished but this cannot be seen in satellite imagery. Iran did demolish a small outbuilding on the same site that appears to have been a garage. It was probably demolished to make way for a new road that is being built at the Parchin complex. Another small structure, probably a garage or material store was reported destroyed but is still in place in the latest satellite imagery…The building of interest for the IAEA remains standing.”
“Iran has engaged in large-scale bulldozing operations on about 25 hectares near the Parchin building. This includes the bulldozing of old dirt piles to level a field 500 metres north of the building of interest. However, there has been no such activity in the area west of the building, except for removing some parking pads within about 10 m of it. The fact that the building’s immediate vicinity has been largely untouched on the west side strongly suggests that the purpose of the earth-moving operations was for construction and renovation work and not for ‘sanitizing’ the site by covering up contamination.”
What about the pink tarps mentioned by ISIS, supposedly to prevent satellites from viewing the inside of the buildings ?
“In the summer of 2012 Iran began major renovations at the site. Workers decreased perimeter security by tearing down fences, demolished one outbuilding and began renovation of two buildings. They covered both buildings with pink styrofoam insulation…One building is completely covered with insulation and the other is about 60 per cent covered. Raw materials can be seen on the ground nearby. The buildings were then reroofed and are at different stages of renovation even today.”
A picture of the pink insulation is shown in the report.
Kelley concludes, “The impasse over the Parchin visit has taken on a symbolic importance that is distracting attention from the IAEA’s efforts to address a range of questions about the scope and nature of Iran’s nuclear programme… The IAEA is stretching its mandate to the limit in asking for access to a military site based on tenuous evidence.”
And, of course, let’s keep in mind that these allegations, suspicions and “concerns” (as opposed to actual legal issues) that the IAEA has about Parchin date from about a decade or more ago – if they are true at all. And that they relate to conventional explosives testing.
As for any current worries about nuclear weapons work in Iran, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has confirmed that he has “a high level of confidence” that no such work is going on now. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also weighed in: “Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.” And Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not “seen a shred of evidence” that Iran was pursuing the bomb. Adding, “I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.”
There are a number of other problems in the IAEA reports on Iran: For example, the agency keeps saying in its reports that it cannot “provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran” nor that “all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.” But the agency cannot be expected to do this – that is not its job. Pierre Goldschmidt, the former deputy director of Safeguards at the IAEA summed it up well: “The Department of Safeguards doesn’t have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate and to provide the assurances the international community is expecting.”
In fact, not only is it legally problematic to fulfill such a verification, it is a logical impossibility: The agency cannot prove the absence of something. There can always be somewhere in Iran where the IAEA has not looked. In fact, no one can reasonably task the IAEA to prove a negative in any country, whether it be in Brazil, Argentina, or the 49 other nations for which it is still evaluating the absence of undeclared nuclear activity.
The only real concern with Iran at the moment is that it is stockpiling 20% enriched uranium and that it could — if it decided to weaponize in the future — further enrich it to weapons grade. This is a worry about a future potential, not something that is happening now. Brazil and Argentina could do similar things. Japan could leave the NPT and breakout also. This breakout potential is a well known and inherent flaw (or a “feature”, depending on one’s perspective) of the NPT. If the P5+1 countries (all nuclear-armed, aside from Germany) would like to close this loophole, they should consider a bold new “NPT 2.0” Treaty, such as the one I outlined in an article for Foreign Policy.
Despite the generally alarmist reporting on Iran, it is not at all an eminent threat. For 30 years it has been claimed that Iran is just about to weaponize, when in fact none of those claims have ever panned out. For example, in 1984, Jane’s Defence Weekly quoted West German intelligence sources as saying that Iran’s bomb production “is entering its final stages”. In 1992, Bibi Netanyahu said Iran is 3-5 years from a bomb. He is just as wrong now, as he was then.
What about the claims that Iran’s allegedly covert enrichment plant at Fordow indicates a sinister weaponization intent? Not necessarily — Iran’s perspective on its national security environment is likely different than the view in Washington or Jerusalem. The Iranians may see this location as a defensive measure to protect its legitimate nuclear program. They have surely heeded the lesson from Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s civilian Osirak reactor in 1981: There is no guarantee of safety when it comes to nuclear facilities in the Middle East, not even civilian ones. It’s a rough neighborhood. What is viewed with suspicion in the West may simply be seen as a defensive no-brainer in Tehran.
And, of course, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was not covert by initial design. Iran’s nuclear program was kicked off in the 1950s with the full encouragement and support of the United States, under the auspices of president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. In 1983, after the Islamic revolution, Iran went – in an overt way – to the IAEA to get help in setting up a pilot uranium enrichment facility. And the IAEA was then very receptive to the idea. According to an authoritative Nuclear Fuel article by the renowned Mark Hibbs, “IAEA officials were keen to assist Iran in reactivating a research program to learn how to process U3O8 into UO2 pellets and then set up a pilot plant to produce UF6, according to IAEA documents obtained by Nuclear Fuel.” But, according to Hibbs, “when in 1983 the recommendations of an IAEA mission to Iran were passed on to the IAEA’s technical cooperation program, the U.S. government then ‘directly intervened’ to discourage the IAEA from assisting Iran in production of UO2 and UF6. ‘We stopped that in its tracks,’ said a former U.S. official.”
So, yes, when Iran’s overt attempt was stymied politically, they obtained more covert means to set-up their enrichment facility. Enrichment facilities by their nature can be dual-use, of course, but they are certainly not disallowed under the NPT. And Iran’s allegedly “covert” or “sneaky” behavior may be largely a response to past politicization at the IAEA, and a lesson-learned from Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s civilian nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981. Unfortunately, the politicization has evidently only gotten worse since the 1980s. As representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at an IAEA board of governors meeting in 2010 already noted: “NAM notes with concern, the possible implications of the continued departure from standard verification language in the summary of the report of the director general [Yukio Amano].” (NAM represents over 100 nations, a clear majority of the world community).
Regarding how intrusive IAEA inspectors are supposed to be, the model safeguards agreement (INFCIRC-153), is quite clear:
“The Agency shall require only the minimum amount of information and data consistent with carrying out its responsibilities under the Agreement. Information pertaining to facilities shall be the minimum necessary for safeguarding nuclear material subject to safeguards under the Agreement.”
This completely validates Mr. Hans Blix statement that Iran has already exceeded the typical level of cooperation required of it by letting the IAEA visit Parchin twice: “Any country, I think, would be rather reluctant to let international inspectors to go anywhere in a military site…in a way, the Iranians have been more open than most other countries would be.”
So, back to current events: Iran is known to be converting part of its 20% enriched UF6 gas to metallic form making a “breakout” that much harder. And Tehran has signaled that it is willing to suspend 20% uranium enrichment if some sanctions are removed: so if the P5+1 countries are serious about their concern about a — completely legal — possible future potential Iranian breakout capability using its 20% enriched uranium stockpile, and they would like Iran to foreclose that option then they should take Iran up on its offer to suspend 20% enrichment by lifting some sanctions. What is definitely not constructive is making a mountain out of the Parchin molehill – a molehill that the IAEA has visited twice before and found exactly nothing at.