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.

Inserting useful tools into the BTWC

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Since that fateful year of 2001, when the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiations on a legally binding protocol to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) collapsed and the 5th Review Conference failed following an attempt by the Bush Administration to terminate the AHG mandate, states parties have been trying to develop useful activities to keep the ailing treaty alive.

A lot of what has been going on since then I would qualify as Beschäftigungstherapie—you know, engaging in games, energising dexterity and developing practical skills to strengthen and motivate an ailing patient. It worked to a large extent. But like any treatment continuing for too long, its efficacy dwindles and the patient begins to question why he has to go to yet another session.

And then there are moments when inspired creativity flickers. Moments when one senses that some tangible, meaningful progress could be made. Such a moment occurred on 7 August, when the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) organised a one-day workshop on ‘Implications and lessons learned from the Ebola virus disease outbreak for the Biological Weapons Convention’ at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The theme was closely linked to the item of Article VII of the BTWC on the agenda of next week’s Meeting of Experts. A packed room, overwhelmingly from missions to the UN, joined in the discussions. The event was structured around a research project run by the US Departments of State and Health and Human Services. Investigators are looking into how the recent experiences with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa have challenged existing understanding of international assistance and how such assistance might be affected if the outbreak had been determined to be a biological weapon (BW) attack. The researchers will present their report at the December Meeting of States Parties (MSP).

Based on close analysis of events in West Africa and the evolving mobilisation of international assistance, the researchers designed a scenario around an Ebola epidemic caused by non-state actors. Outbreak characteristics included the impossibility to link the virus strain epidemiologically to earlier cases and the location of some of the affected people in areas not under government control. Furthermore, in the opening stages the deliberate nature of the outbreak was not entirely clear. The researchers sent the scenario to government officials, intergovernmental and other international or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved with health or assistance and relief, financial donors and other concerned parties. The survey yielded preliminary results regarding the opportunities and issues for NGOs, safety and security of medical staff, command and control, and confusion about the involvement of militaries or peacekeepers.

These issues informed the two breakout sessions, each of which covered three themes. I participated in the one on military engagements and facilitated the one on the role of international cooperation and capacity-building efforts. The notes below are personal impressions rather than a comprehensive report on the discussions. They highlight certain issues as they pertain to the BTWC.

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