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.



11 Comments on “Elephant Not in the Room: Whither the Mythological Parchin Explosion Chamber?”

  1. Cyrus says:

    Like facts make a difference to the likes of Albright and ISIS?

  2. Cyrus says:

    The reason why the Iranians insisted on taking the samples themselves is because Iran too has domestic politics, and plenty of “hardliners” who objected to further intrusions on Iran’s sovereignty by demands for inspections of a site that the IAEA would normally not be entitled to visit at all, and yet Iran allowed two visits thus far… only to see the goalposts moved each time and further demands imposed.

  3. robertkelley2012 says:

    Actually Yousaf I did not say it was not there. I just asked if they saw the 1000 tons or so of debris removed. Maybe they did. My favorite scenario is they painted it all bright pink and piled it on the roof where no one would notice

    • yousaf says:

      Bob, thanks for the clarification. I only stated above that in your report you thought that satellite monitoring would be able to detect activity related to sneaking out even a cut-up chamber. I did not say that you said it was not there. Even I don’t say that.

      What I am saying is that there is no chamber now (ref: IAEA), and that the ISIS NGO’s statement saying that there was some way to sneak it out without satellites being able to detect such activity has little technical merit. But, of course, this is unsurprising given the background and imagery analysis qualifications of the folks there.

      Thanks for all your reports on this issue.

      I’m currently putting the Parchin chamber file next to my AP graphs, the non-existent ring magnets, the Polonium-210, the exploding bridgewire detonators, and Marivan etc. etc. files.

    • Johnboy says:

      It would be an interesting physics experiment to calculate how much load-bearing would be have to be engineered into roof beams in order for them to support an extra 1,000 tons of weight without failing catastrophically.

      Still, would Amano even notice that the roof beams seem implausibly thick, or that they appear to be bowing to a quite alarming degree?

  4. Johnboy says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb and predict what David Albright’s next excuse will be.

    It’ll be this: the pink batts and the oh-so-suspicious hosing down of that parking lot proves – Proves!! Proves!! – that the Iranians do indeed have something to hide at Parchin.

    Obviously so, because in hindsight it is clear that those activities were Red Herrings deliberately intended to divert ISIS’s attention away from the *real* location of that steel explosive chamber, which is still in Parchin somewhere… umm… else.

    OK, so my ISIS boys fell for that Red Herring, sure, they did, but that just proves my point!

    These are smart boys and girls – the very best in the business – so the very fact that Iran went to enough trouble to befuddle such bright-eyed analysts simply reinforces that Iran Must Be Hiding Something Big in Parchin… err… somewhere.

    So look in *this* building, Amano!

    Do it! Do it! Do it! Do it!

    And if there isn’t any explosive chamber in there then try the *the* *next* *building*, and keep going through them until you’ve looked in every last one of those damned things.

    Because that steel chamber is in there somewhere.

    I. Can. Almost. Smell. It.

  5. Red says:

    Read the text of the treaty – the NPT. Then consider the salient facts about what states are observing it, and which are not. Vae Victis. And recall this: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

  6. george Archers says:

    How forgetful –reported last week, IAEA reused to get involved in inspecting Israel’s nuclear facilities. In a matter of 2 days, Israel donated un disclosed money as a gift.

  7. William says:

    There is no question about what country wants the U.S. to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Such idiocy would be done at the urging of Israel and U.S. supporters of Israel. It would be an act of war, of course, and it would be a war started by the U.S. for the sake of a dependent country. Bombing Iran for Israel’s loonys would be paid for by the American taxpayers, and the blood shed would be the blood of American soldiers.
    It is beyond any reasonable doubt that U.S. congressional supporters of Israel not only betray their own constituents but the entire nation as well, which makes them cowards of the most contemptible kind and traitors who should be indicted for giving comfort — U.S. treasure and blood — to a foreign state which could well be called an enemy state.

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