Co-authored by David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Allison Lach, and Frank Pabian.
Fear of derailing the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and facing political pressure led the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the summer of 2015 to negotiate a problematic arrangement with Iran regarding nuclear weapons development activities at a site at the Parchin military complex. The arrangement, which was negotiated under the Road-map for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program, established inadequate rules for on-the-ground investigation and environmental sampling about alleged nuclear weapons-related high explosive work at this Parchin site. Not surprisingly, this weak arrangement, in which the IAEA was limited in its visits and ability to take environmental samples at the site, failed to resolve the issue. Moreover, it has complicated the IAEA’s ability to return to the site to resolve the on-going discrepancies in Iran’s story. Resolving these discrepancies is critical to understanding Iran’s progress on nuclear weapons at this site and elsewhere, assuring the detection of any Iranian attempt to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, and ensuring that the JCPOA is adequately verified.
Despite years of Iran sanitizing the site and the Iranians taking their own environmental samples, the IAEA nonetheless detected the presence of anthropogenically-processed (“man-made”) particles of natural uranium. The IAEA stated that it was unable to make definitive conclusions based on these particles; however, the results suggested that undeclared uranium was at this location, which would potentially be in violation of Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement.
For many experts, despite Iran’s on-going denials, substantial evidence exists that Iran conducted secret nuclear weapons development activities at Parchin. The evidence includes the presence of uranium particles, a variety of other evidence of work related to nuclear weapons, and the many suspicious site alterations made by Iran after the IAEA requested access in 2012. It is critical to note that the IAEA has not been able to reach a definitive conclusion and needs to access the site again under greater Iranian cooperation.
Understanding how far Iran went at Parchin is an important part of understanding Iran’s work on nuclear weapons. A comprehensive understanding of this work is critical to setting a baseline for effective monitoring to ensure early detection if Iran resumes work on nuclear weapons. The issue of past activity at the Parchin site is also related to the IAEA reaching a credible broader conclusion under the Additional Protocol that all nuclear material has been accounted for and has remained in only peaceful activities. The past activities at Parchin stand as a roadblock to such a determination. Moreover, the JCPOA, in Section T, Annex 1, bans certain nuclear weapons development activities – some of which are suspected to have occurred at Parchin – and places controls on associated dual-use equipment. Section T-controlled equipment was used at this Parchin site, as well as other locations at Parchin, and may still be used at Parchin or at other locations outside of required JCPOA controls.
The P5+1 should require the IAEA to further investigate the Parchin case. The inspection effort should be facilitated by Iran allowing access to key individuals and additional sites – including those near the Parchin high explosive bunker and other associated locations, such as sites involved in multi-point detonator work and manufacturing facilities for explosive chambers. It may well find other important information. The lack of on-going access to Parchin calls into question the adequacy of the verification of the JCPOA and the deal’s long-term utility to deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Like previous nuclear agreements with North Korea, where downplaying the IAEA’s verification helped doom those agreements, the JCPOA currently risks the same fate. It should be noted that North Korea proceeded with undeclared plutonium metallurgy and other nuclear weapons-related work outside nuclear facilities subject to IAEA monitoring under the 1994 Agreed Framework, enabling North Korea to continue working on nuclear weapons and to build them more quickly after withdrawing from the Agreed Framework in late 2002.