The Parchin Trap

Don't count on the IAEA uncovering a smoking gun at Iran's military complex.


As dysfunctional as the U.S. political system can be, Washington is a model of unity in comparison with the politics in Tehran. Disarray in the Iranian capital was on full display in February when a high-level team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was needlessly sent home for the second time without anything to show for its trouble. And that’s just a preview of the sort of confusion that’s in store for international powers as they prepare to once again sit down at the table with Iranian officials to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

The dispute between the IAEA and Tehran partly centers on the Parchin military complex, located about 20 miles southeast of Tehran. IAEA inspectors want to confirm evidence that, some years ago, Iran conducted high-explosives tests there that the IAEA termed "strong indicators of possible weapon development."

In anticipation of coming out ahead in the PR game, the Iranian diplomats who negotiated with the IAEA indicated in January that they would allow a visit to the Parchin military base. They also indicated that they would agree to a plan for addressing other questions about nuclear activities with "possible military dimensions," as the IAEA puts it.

On the first day of the follow-up visit in mid-February, the Iranian Foreign Ministry team was tough but workmanlike in negotiating an IAEA plan to provide access to sites of interest and full information about past and current nuclear activities. When Iranian diplomats sought to clear the tentative plan with others in the ruling elite, however, they were rudely overruled by Iranian hard-liners — the inspectors were denied access to Parchin and returned to Vienna empty-handed. Think Colin Powell being boxed in by Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, or Russia’s Trotskyites outmaneuvered by Stalinists.

To make matters even more opaque, it’s not even clear who the "Stalinists" were in this scenario. Although the main political intrigue in Tehran concerns a no-holds-barred power struggle between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the dispute in this case appears to have been between forces in the executive branch nominally under the president. Vienna insiders suspect that the veto was voiced by Saeed Jalili, whom Ahmadinejad appointed four years ago as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. That would be a confusing development because Jalili was the official who tentatively accepted — on Ahmadinejad’s behalf — the nuclear fuel-swap plan offered by U.S. President Barack Obama in the autumn of 2009. Under the terms of that deal, Iran would have sent the bulk of its enriched-uranium stockpile to Russia in exchange for replacement fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). But back then, Ahmadinejad’s rivals, from all sides of the political spectrum, shot down the plan in order to deny the president a diplomatic victory.

This is far from idle Kremlinology. In upcoming nuclear talks, Jalili will be Iran’s lead negotiator with the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States), plus Germany. The negotiations promise to be contentious. The P5+1 is demanding a suspension of uranium enrichment and of work on a research reactor near the city of Arak that would be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. As a confidence-building measure, the P5+1 wants Iran to stop producing 20 percent enriched uranium, remove its stocks, and stop work in the deeply buried enrichment facility at Fordow, which has fueled Israeli fears that Iran is entering a "zone of immunity," robbing Israel of its ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program through conventional military means.

With the passage of time, the prospects of Washington and Tehran reaching a deal have only grown dimmer. Last fall, Ahmadinejad offered to halt the 20 percent enrichment if Iran was provided TRR fuel, which is enriched to that level. Iran’s foreign minister repeated the offer, but some analysts doubted whether others in the regime would go along, especially given the way Ahmadinejad has been emasculated by Khamenei during the past year. Indeed, it is questionable whether Khamenei would accept any deal that is also acceptable to Washington.

Parchin, incidentally, is a side show. The IAEA wants to examine a large containment chamber where hydrodynamic tests reportedly had taken place before 2004. But an IAEA visit now may not uncover much — and not just because Iran has had plenty of time to hide any incriminating evidence in the eight-plus years since the alleged activity took place. The testing experiments that were reportedly conducted there used surrogate material to simulate nuclear components. Unless nuclear material was present for some other reason, IAEA environmental sampling would not detect any telltale signs, giving Iran an excuse to trumpet its vindication.

Nevertheless, the wrangling over Parchin is a microcosm of a larger debate about whether Iran is dealing with the international community in good faith. At the IAEA board of governors’ March 8 meeting in Vienna, Iranian Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh sought to put a positive spin on what he called Iran’s "proactive and cooperative approach." The response by IAEA officials, however, reflected a very different characterization. Director General Yukiya Amano said Soltanieh’s words were not "factually correct."

In Vienna, those are fighting words. Amano said Iran had sought to impose restrictions that would make it impossible for the agency to properly carry out its verification work. Herman Nackaerts, head of the IAEA Safeguards Department, explained that Iran sought to confine the IAEA’s questions and refuse it the right to pose follow-up queries to Iran’s answers. Iran also continues to refuse to provide design information regarding new nuclear facilities under construction and updated design information about the Arak research reactor. Such reporting is required in IAEA safeguards rules that Iran had agreed to in 2003 and then unilaterally abrogated four years later.

The issue of design information for new nuclear facilities is particularly relevant because Iran wants to restrict talks with the IAEA to the set of outstanding questions about alleged past activities — and not focus on the ongoing and potential future nuclear activity that is of most concern to the international community. Iran does allow inspection of its enrichment work at Natanz and Fordow. If Fordow had not been discovered by Western intelligence agencies, however, Iran surely would not have revealed it voluntarily. Concerned countries want Iran to agree to come clean about all new nuclear facilities.

Iran has hinted that, in talks with the international powers, it will seek to have all negotiations over its nuclear activity channeled through the IAEA. If that will create space for a face-saving compromise on grounds that the issues are of a technical and not political nature, it might not be a bad idea. However, the manner in which Iran dealt with the IAEA over the smaller question of Parchin will not give the United States and its partners any reason to think that the bigger questions about Iran’s far-reaching nuclear program are any more likely to be resolved by going through Vienna.

Mark Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies–Americas and the head of the IISS nonproliferation and nuclear policy program. Twitter: @FitzpatrickIISS

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