Why the IAEA Would Yield to Iran on Inspecting the Parchin Weapons Site

LONDON -- It's hard to be certain, but it may be because the IAEA's track record under its previous head of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, is marred by the botched analysis of the Syrian site at Al Kibar. The Iranians may be insisting on carrying out the Parchin inspections themselves to make sure they, too, are not wrongly accused by the IAEA.
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PARCHIN, IRAN-NOVEMBER 7, 2012: This is a satellite image of the Parchin high explosive test site collected on November 7, 2012. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
PARCHIN, IRAN-NOVEMBER 7, 2012: This is a satellite image of the Parchin high explosive test site collected on November 7, 2012. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

LONDON -- According to a draft document seen by the Associated Press, it appears that Iranian technicians -- and not the International Atomic Energy Agency -- will be taking the lead in collecting samples from the Parchin military complex to check for the presence of any trace amounts of nuclear material. This is the site in Iran where conventional explosives testing possibly relevant to nuclear weapons research is alleged to have taken place more than a decade ago. Usually, IAEA staff would do the sampling themselves. So -- assuming the Associated Press story is true, and the draft document reflects the final agreed measures -- how come such a "managed-access" arrangement was granted to Iran this time? It's hard to be certain, but it may be because the IAEA's track record under its previous head of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, is marred by the botched analysis of the Syrian site at Al Kibar. The Iranians may be insisting on leading the Parchin inspections themselves to make sure they, too, are not wrongly accused by the IAEA. In any case, it is almost certain that the Associated Press is wrong to imply that IAEA inspectors will not accompany any Iranian technicians: in such managed access, IAEA inspectors either take the lead, or would closely oversee the Iranian technicians taking the samples -- and would likely collect background and control samples themselves. So what happened in Syria that could have triggered the extra cautious approach to inspections? An account included in an official IAEA report and not disputed by the agency says that, "the result of the analysis of one sample point[ed] to three uranium particles, whereas the results of four other samples taken from the same place within a 30 meter range contained no [man-made] uranium particles." As former U.K. Ambassador to the IAEA Peter Jenkins pointed out recently, improper methods appear to have been used to collect and process the samples from the Al Kibar site in Syria:

After the team had left the site and returned to their hotel, having taken several samples that Syria had authorized, [a] senior inspector bragged that he had taken an unauthorized 'swipe' of a surface in the men's room and had placed the swipe in one of his pockets.

On the team's return to IAEA headquarters, this unauthorized swipe was sent off for analysis by just one member state, not several states as is the norm -- a norm respected in the case of the other, authorized samples. Also ignored were IAEA protocols that stipulate that at least two inspectors should always be present when samples are taken, and that swipe materials should be taken from and placed back into clean receptacles, not from or into (possibly contaminated) inspector pockets. In addition, Syria was not informed of the unauthorized swipe and was not given a duplicate of this particular sample, contrary to normal practice.

When the samples came back from analysis, it was on the unauthorized swipe that aU [man-made, or anthropogenic Uranium] particles had been found. Natural uranium particles found in some authorized samples were not anthropogenic.

Another former IAEA inspector, Dr. Yousry Abushady, who reportedly resigned from the agency partly because of the Syria fiasco, also confirmed this version of events to colleagues. And Robert Kelley, yet another former IAEA inspector, has publicly joined Ambassador Jenkin's appeal that the Syria file be reviewed because of the multiple breaches of IAEA protocol, improper IAEA inspector conduct and the flawed logic of the subsequent analysis. If proper IAEA protocol had been followed, the analysis and conclusions would be valid -- but they, evidently, weren't. It's essentially an open secret among former IAEA inspectors that the Syria analysis was improperly manipulated under Olli Heinonen's stewardship of the safeguards department. Quite apart from the fact that it is a sensitive military site, this may be why the Iranians want to lead the Parchin swipe sampling themselves. Assuming that the IAEA has worked out a technically sound method of obtaining the samples, is there a reason for concern that the Iranians may be leading their own swipe sampling? After all, according to information reportedly leaked by some elements within the U.S. intelligence community, Iran may be attempting to "clean up the site ahead of planned inspections by the IAEA," by carrying out paving and construction at the site. If future IAEA inspections reveal nothing of concern at the site -- as past IAEA inspections there did -- does this mean Iran succeeded in this 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? 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. And, no, Tehran cannot sanitize the inside of buildings using paving or bulldozers outside the building. 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.

So since the IAEA clearly approves of the managed-access methodology they've worked out with Iran, and assuming they are targeting the correct building -- and if nuclear materials were indeed used there more than a decade ago -- then, yes, the IAEA will be able to get a positive signal on the swipe samples. But if they have the wrong building or if, in fact, Iran did not use nuclear materials, then a negative finding would result. According to Tariq Rauf, former head of verification and security policy coordination at the IAEA, managed-access where Iranian technicians would do the physical sampling under the oversight of IAEA inspectors, ought not be a reason for concern. Incidentally, 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.

Of course, if the IAEA happened to be targeting the wrong buildings before, it could also be targeting the wrong building(s) now. The intelligence the agency was/is relying on for its allegations appears to be not very solid. And the IAEA had the possibility to access the current building of interest in 2005 but did not go there then, by choice. According to Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor:

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.

Olli Heinonen was also head of IAEA safeguards at that time and led those inspections. He described the methodology of choosing which buildings to inspect:

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.

In the final measure though, it's worth remembering that the interest in Parchin derives from decade-old allegations. And the quality of the intelligence on which these accusations are based is questionable. Mohamed Elbaradei, who was head of the IAEA when the Parchin and the "Alleged Studies" (now known as the "Possible Military Dimensions" or PMD) file first surfaced, had reservations about the quality of the intelligence 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.

In any case, the alleged weapons research work dating from more than a decade ago is only of tangential importance to the nuclear deal, which focuses on restricting Iran's future nuclear work. And, certainly, the deal ought not be sacrificed over this marginal concern over half-baked decade-old allegations -- allegations that may well be false, according the former head of the IAEA. While the IAEA may be concerned about Iran, it seems the feeling is mutual. Given the IAEA's track-record in Syria, Iran may well be concerned that the IAEA cannot be trusted also. The IAEA must come clean about its past missteps in Syria and rebuild trust, and give assurances to the international community that future inspections will be done according to strict protocol. Hopefully, the much greater transparency gained under the nuclear agreement with Iran can serve to clear the air and rebuild trust between the IAEA and Iran. The views expressed here are Dr. Butt's and do not necessarily reflect those of the Council.

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