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.


37 Comments on “Reviewing Parchin”

  1. Muller says:

    “Public satellite imagery released to-date does not tell us whether Tehran has attempted sanitization within the building(s) of interest.”

    Actually they started sanitization inside the building before April 2012. Butt should trace the reporting about the site more carefully.

    • yousaf says:

      Could you provide the information that definitively states that the inside of the buildings were being sanitized (versus a hypothesis to that effect)?

      Also please note what else I state:

      “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]”

      You may also be interested in my Reuters piece:

      • Muller says:

        There has been suspicious activity at the site since 2012, lots of water streaming from inside the building, re-roofing, demolition work, bulldozing, sealing; which started after the building was identified as the site of special interest. That’s why, there is so much fuzz about it.

      • yousaf says:

        I am familiar with the claims, of course. However, “suspicious” is somewhat qualitative, and in the eye of the beholder. But, sure, let’s assume the hypothesis that those things were done as an attempt to sanitize the building is correct.

        If so, I’d again recommend reading the quote above from the IAEA:

        Click to access 159.pdf

        “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.”

        If you don’t believe that person at the IAEA perhaps you will believe the head of the IAEA’s Environmental Sample Lab?


        “Tell-tale particles could not be removed completely from a facility where uranium was used, said Stephan Vogt, a senior IAEA official….”You cannot get rid of them by cleaning, you cannot dilute them to the extent that we will not be able to pick them up. It is just a matter of time,” Vogt, who heads the IAEA’s Environmental Sample Laboratory, said.”


        So if nuclear materials were used — especially in explosives tests — swipe samples from inside the building (and from inside the alleged chamber, if real) will pick them up.

      • Johnboy says:

        Muller: …which started after the building was identified as the site of special interest.”…

        I’m not at all convinced that you can justify that statement.

        After all, there is quite a big difference between:
        a) Iran started hosing out that building only after it had been “identified” as “of special interest”
        b) That building became “of special interest” only after Iran started hosing it out.

        Are you absolutely certain that you can put the correct dates on the chicken and the egg?

  2. Before everyone gets all worked up about this, there are no heavy vehicles at the Parchin parking lot of intense interest, there are no earth moving vehicles, there is no earth moving, there is no “sanitization” going on whatsoever. Claims to the opposite are fairy tales to scare little children. The imagery shows absolutely nothing is going on. Believe your eyes.

    Dissecting activities that are not happening is merely highlighting the claim that Iran is obfuscating and sanitizing and not going to comply with the JCPOA. Bias on steroids.

    It is a sad day for press integrity in America.

    • yousaf says:

      Agree — my point was not only with the recent past allegations but the years’ past allegations of sanitization/paving/earth-moving by the ISIS imagery shop: even the years’ past allegations of paving and earth-moving do not amount to much because the location of most interest for sampling would be within the building(s) of interest.

      • Johnboy says:

        Iran’s critics insist that the Iranians are crafty beyond belief, not to be trusted, as-cunning-as, deceit is in their DNA, yadda, yadda, yadda.

        Yet it is amusing to see that David Albright and his merry band will peer at their satellite photos and yell Gotcha!!!! the moment they see signs of any “sanitization/paving/earth-moving” going on outside *this* building or *that* building at Parchin.

        So we have here a situation where – apparently – the Iranians are crafty-beyond-belief except at Parchin, where they are just too damn dumb to comprehend that Albright’s Brightest(tm) are watching every move like a hawk.


        Am I the only person who remembers Ali’s famous rope-a-dope move?

        What better way to make dopes out of the IAEA than to run a hose through some innocuous building, moving a bit o’ dirt this way’n’that, stick a few Pink Batts in the roof, and then watch the IAEA take the bait at the hysterical urging of ISIS.

        Because that’s what I’d do….

        ….if I was crafty beyond belief, not to be trusted, as-cunning-as, etc. etc. etc……

  3. Yousry Abushady says:

    Can we first ask a simple question, What Iran is Sanitizing for at this military location that they are afraid to be discovered by the IAEA inspectors?
    The site is a military site for explosive tests. Its main function is to test High explosives in a fire chamber, a type of facilities very well known to all States. We talk too much about environmental samples (ES), but what we shall detect, even they test explosives for nuclear bombs? is the explosive material of conventional weapons are that much different from that needed for nuclear weapon -before AB assembly?
    Iran allowed access and ES were taken by IAEA inspectors two times in 2005. The selection of the buildings were absolutely random by IAEA with all buildings made available to IAEA inspectors. The results of the visits and all samples were negative. The Parchin site since 2003 was under very strong satellite monitoring. The Iranian are very much knowledgeable of IAEA and other intelligence agencies of their interest and monitoring of this particular site. So, how we believe that with all strong monitoring it will perform nuclear related activities in this particular site? I agree with Yousaf and Bob that the presence of two trucks or similar is impossible to sanitize the inside of the buildings. So, please for anyone to comment try to be neutral.

  4. Denis says:

    Am I missing something? I mean, is there a link in this piece to photos of the bulldozers? I see repeated links labeled “location of parked vehicles,” but they go to Hick’s tweet which is of no help the first time and certainly no help the second time. I see a link to Albright’s latest babble, and that has a map, but no images of the vehicles he is talking about and Yousaf is talking about.

    There’s 17 links here. Does one of them show the Parchin site and the vehicles the fuss is all about? If not, please direct us to the relevant sat-photos.

    BTW, when I got to the Aug05 Bloomberg article I thought “David Albright” would be the first two words. Nope, they don’t cite him until 17 paragraphs into the article. They guy’s cred is slipping.

  5. yousaf says:

    FYI — Scott Horton just interviewed me on this issue:

  6. yousaf says:

    And for the record AP makes a completely new story with an additional reporter besides Jahn, which includes paragraphs it cut from previous story:

    “The document suggests that instead of carrying out their own probe, IAEA staff will monitor Iranian personnel as they inspect the Parchin nuclear site.


    IAEA experts would normally take environmental samples for evidence of any weapons development work, but the agreement stipulates that Iranian technicians will do the sampling.

    The sampling is also limited to only seven samples inside the building where the experiments allegedly took place. Additional ones will be allowed only outside of the Parchin site, in an area still to be determined.

    “Activities will be carried out using Iran’s authenticated equipment consistent with technical specifications provided by the agency,” the agreement says. While the document says that the IAEA “will ensure the technical authenticity” of Iran’s inspection, it does not say how.”

    Maybe we’ll have a new version in a few hours?

  7. Yousry Abushady says:

    It is not the first time that non-IAEA staff helps IAEA inspector to take ES. Two persons are needed to take properly the ES. One called the clean (just open/close plastic bags holding the Swipes) and second one called Dirty as he Swipes the items subject to environmental dust. In Europe Only one IAEA inspector do the job with Euratom inspector or the operator. In other areas, it happened that one IAEA did the job with State representative or Operator. In rare cases the operator do the dirty role as the location needed to swipe is quite difficult for access by normal inspector. Also, it is very rare for IAEA to take more than 7 SETs (each with 6 single swipes) at one location. On other hand, I doubt the AP information, not only for the above points, but also for other points mentioned. The Agency announced already it follows all SG known rules and procedures, so, why we doubt it? unless for a political reason connected to current discussions and approval of Iran nuclear agreement !

  8. Johnboy says:

    Maybe I’m being naïve even asking this, but here goes: the reason why the IAEA wants to inspect the “building of interest” is because it is alleged that experiments were conducted there using a Big Steel Implosion Chamber, correct?

    Yet I assume such a steel cylinder is much to big to be removed by simply opening the front door and wheeling it out on a trolley. The Iranians would pretty much have to pull a wall down (if not demolish the entire building) in order to extract it. Correct?

    So why all this fuss about taking environmental samples inside the building?

    Either the inspectors walk into that building and are confronted with a Big Ol’ Implosion Chamber, or they walk in and see that there is no such chamber.

    If the former then it really doesn’t matter what samples are taken – the very existence of that chamber will lead everyone to assume that the stories are real, and that those experiments did indeed take place.

    If the latter then the IAEA inspectors may as well go home, since the non-existence of that chamber will mean that original story must be a load of old bollocks, and the IAEA have been sold a dummy.

    I mean, what am I missing here?

    Is it in any way possible for the Iranians to remove such a mammoth cylinder without David Albright’s Eagle Eyed Interns ™ noticing? How plausible is it to claim that the Iranians could cut it up in-situ and pass the fragments through the front door?

    Because I don’t recall the ISIS guru ever shouting GOTCHA!!!!!! as he waved a satellite photo that shows a big steel cylinder being extracted from that building.

    • yousaf says:

      Well, if the chamber is there and samples indicate no evidence of U (even unenriched) or other nuclear materials then there is no basis for claiming that something nuclear-related was going on, and certainly no basis for suspecting that the CSA was violated.

      Such chambers are used for conventional explosives testing — and for making nanodiamonds etc.

      So a big ol’ chamber by itself means little.

      See a new twist on what may be inside the building here:

      • yousaf says:

        And BTW, I have a piece in HuffPost explaining the AP “side-deal” document and some possible explanation of why the IAEA might have been forced to accept such terms from Iran:

      • Muller says:

        “… and for making nanodiamonds etc.”

        In a military complex. LOL

      • yousaf says:

        Yes, it would be unsurprising to have facilities that use conventional explosives to make nanodiamonds to be placed on military sites. Not so LOL to me.

        That said, I have *no idea* what was happening in the current building of interest 13 years ago.

        The previous two locations in Parchin that the IAEA was intensely interested in came up with nothing at all.

        Bob Kelley hypothesizes that this is what may be inside the current facility:

      • Johnboy says:

        Muller: “In a military complex. LOL”

        Well, if the process requires a very large implosion then, yes, it makes sense to do it in a military complex that deals with large explosion, implosions, ignitions, rockets, whatever.

        Where would you put such a cylinder? In the middle of Tehran?

        That industrial applications take place in a military complex would not surprise me in the least, and especially so if the application involves Making Something Go Boom!

        Something that military men do quite well, apparently…..

      • Johnboy says:

        Thanks, yousaf, I had already read Kelly’s article.

        So he has already put down his marker, predicting that all that the IAEA will find inside that building is a Big Ol’ X-Ray Machine.

        (I’ll note that in one of the other articles he pooh-poohed the “diagram” of the alleged implosion chamber i.e. he appears to be unconvinced that the chamber actually exists).

        But I’m still curious: if the IAEA step through that door and there **isn’t** a Big Steel Implosion Chamber then how credible will be a claim that the Iranians must have sneaked it out?

        I assume that such a claim is ludicrous i.e. the building itself would have to be at least partially demolished, which clearly has never happened.

        But maybe I’m wrong.

        Maybe the Iranians could cut up such a cylinder and sneak the pieces out by hiding them in their pockets.

        Does anyone think that is even remotely possible?

      • yousaf says:

        Even if the cylinder is cut up, trace nucl materials (if they ever existed) would be all over the inside of the building.



        There’s an additional problem with this version of events. Would conducting tests in a chamber actually succeed in hiding traces of uranium? The answer is no. When explosives and uranium are detonated together, they produce large amounts of soot and debris, as well as finely divided uranium particles. There would be other materials in the chamber—for example, railroad ties to absorb shrapnel and protect the chamber walls—and they would inevitably be damaged and burnt. The chamber’s interior would look like your fireplace after a few frigid winter evenings when your furnace is on the fritz. Unless the experimenters are very careful, bits of debris, fine soot and ash will go everywhere. And if the entry door is opened, soot and uranium will be released into the light metal building that allegedly houses the chamber. This would concentrate the uranium evidence in a single building, making it easy for the hypothetical inspectors to find and sample. Performing the tests in a chamber is frankly a monumentally stupid idea. Indeed, once it was identified, it would be a veritable magnet for inspections and a sure-fire way to get caught.

  9. Cyrus says:

    Lets remember folks, that there is already a procedure in place under Iran’s basic safeguards, to resolve questions of whether an undeclared nuclear site exists or not — Special Inspections. However, this has never been invoked, because the goal is not to root out hidden nuclear weapons programs, but to promote hype and speculation.

    I strongly recommend reading the Sept 2004 analysis of Parchin by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein,

    This is truly one of the most bizarre and amusing parts of the entire Iran nuclear hype of the last decade. Pretty much every dirt mound and construction site there were characterized as a potential hiding place of nuclear weapons labs, with absolutely no justification other than the authors’ own imaginations.

    The best conclusion they could come up with was that Parchin was a “logical canddiate” for hidden nuclear activities.

    So, once Iran allowed IAEA open inspections of this non-nuclear facility that fell well outside of the IAEA’s legal jurisdiction (and found nothing) rather than showing any sort of contrition, ISIS’s reaction was to make up yet more stories about yet another dirt mound there and demand yet more inspections of Parchin.

    Which also turned up nothing.

    Parchin seems to be a particular bete noir of Albright. One would think that after all this, such claims would be dismissed as ill-founded and ISIS would be viewed with at some modicum of suspicion or at least critical evaluation by the media.

    Oh, but one would be wrong to think that, obviously.

  10. yousaf says:

    fyi –

    Amano press conf.
    [video src="" /]

    also see VOX on NYTimes reporting:

    “The expert community is almost unanimously lined up against you. (Although, whichever of you persuaded the New York Times to only ever quote the last two arms control experts who oppose the deal, and to ignore the many dozens who support it, kudos. My hat is off.)”

  11. masoud says:

    I think we’ve all buried the lede here.

    David Albright has finally found his true calling in life: parking lot meter maid. We should all be encouraging him to live the dream and and make the switch official.

  12. yousaf says:

    Although the damage from Sanger’s tendentious reporting has been done, thanks to those who wrote in to correct the Times: So the IAEA found NOTHING of interest at Parchin TWICE already —–>


    An article on Saturday about President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and the collection of environmental samples at Parchin, a military base outside Tehran, misstated the number of times that the International Atomic Energy Agency was permitted inside the base. Inspectors from the agency entered the base twice — in January and November 2005 — not once.”

  13. Cyrus says:

    My Parchin Prediction: the issue will be a wash. Once the inspectors yet again find nothing there, Albright and friends will start a hue and cry that naturally, since the site was “sanitized”, there evidence was removed. The point is to shift the burden onto Iran to prove a negative.
    This is a deliberate ploy, as used in Iraq. Robert Kelley warned about this:

    “Specifically, Kelley notes that by declaring in advance the buildings at Parchin that the IAEA seeks to visit, the Agency has introduced a logical flaw into the inspections regime forcing the Iranians to prove a negative. That is, if inspections yield no evidence of military applications the Iranians will now be asked to disprove lingering suspicions that advance notice enabled them to hide the ball. This catch-22, by which weapons inspections produce more doubt than certainty, arose in the decade-long search for WMD in Iraq.”

    • yousaf says:

      The illustrious Olli thought the same:

      But veteran inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say the singular focus on visiting Parchin is a departure for the Agency that could jeopardize its credibility, considering the host of issues that remain between the IAEA and Iran. 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; but they may have a reason.”

  14. yousaf says:

    The following is the US State Dept view:

    ” I think it’s important to remember that when you’re talking about a site like Parchin, you’re talking about a conventional military site, not a nuclear site. So there wouldn’t be any IAEA or other restrictions on new construction at that site were they to occur.”

  15. yousaf says:

    Parchin inspections will have IAEA inspectors present:

    as I pointed out earlier in HuffPost — including an explanation of why such a protocol may have been arranged:

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