Reviewing ParchinPosted: August 16, 2015
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.
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  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.