On December 2, 2015, the IAEA issued its assessment on past and present outstanding issues related to Iran’s nuclear program and its Possible Military Dimensions (PMD). Buried in a footnote is a crucial detail: the presence of man-made uranium particles at the Parchin military complex. Last week, The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon reported U.S. officials saying those particles likely relate to previous nuclear weapons activities, thereby raising even more questions. For example, where is the nuclear material used for those nuclear weapons activities, and what is the source of the particles found at Parchin? The question of whether Iran still has undeclared nuclear material is therefore critical.
Since 2004, the IAEA has sought answers from Iran on PMD. A key focus of these investigations was hydrodynamic testing in a high-explosives test chamber at Parchin, according to information provided to the Agency. Iran granted the IAEA access to the facility twice in 2005, but the IAEA was unaware of information that subsequently surfaced on high-explosive tests.
In 2011, the IAEA asked for clarifications relating to a test chamber in Parchin. Failing to get a response, the Agency requested access to the location in 2012, but Iran refused. Instead, Tehran embarked on several changes and clean-up activities, including shrouding the main building, as well as removing, replacing, or refurbishing external wall structures and part of a building’s roof. Overhead imagery further showed that five other buildings in the vicinity were demolished during that time, as well as indications of significant paving-over and landscaping at and around the site.
On July 14, 2015, alongside the nuclear agreement, the IAEA and Iran agreed on a Road Map to address outstanding issues, including those related to Parchin. Under these special arrangements, Tehran took environmental samples while the Agency observed remotely.
Iranian authorities had stated that the identified building had always been used to store chemical material for the production of explosives. However, environmental samples did not indicate explosive compounds or their precursors that would have corroborated that explanation. Rather, sampling turned up two chemically modified particles of natural uranium. Such a small number of particles with this elemental composition and morphology is insufficient to definitively connect the location with nuclear activities, but the IAEA concluded that the information available does not support Iran’s statements on the building’s purpose.
While the IAEA’s inspection findings about Parchin matter, the follow-up process is just as important. The Agency, however, has not indicated what kind of action it has been taken to confirm whether these particles point to undeclared nuclear material in Parchin or elsewhere in Iran. Such follow-up is standard procedure under the comprehensive safeguards agreement, which requires the state to declare all nuclear material in its territory. The Agency’s December report, Implementation Day report, and two subsequent post-Implementation reports do not indicate if it has sought clarifications or asked for re-sampling, which would be the IAEA’s standard next step for inconclusive findings.
On December 15, 2015, the IAEA Board of Governors closed its consideration of PMD-related issues, but the Agency still has an obligation to carry out its safeguards verification mission under the comprehensive safeguards agreement. The possible existence of undeclared uranium at Parchin gets to the heart of those provisions: It is the duty of the IAEA Secretariat to report to the board on its verification work in Iran. The Agency must continue to transparently document its follow-up in verifying the completeness and correctness of Iran’s declarations. Some of the most important of these, according to the terms of the comprehensive safeguards agreement, are findings and locations related to PMD and Parchin.
Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.