Parchin: A Troubling Precedent for Inspections in Iran

September 3, 2015

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs


Simon Chin and Valerie Lincy

Iran continues construction on a military site linked to nuclear weapons work, according to an August 27 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  The Agency has been barred from the site, known as Parchin, since 2005 and is monitoring changes there using satellite imagery.  In its report, the IAEA noted “the presence of vehicles, equipment, and probable construction materials” and the construction of a “small extension to an existing building” at the site.  The report assessed that Iran’s apparent sanitization efforts “are likely to have undermined the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.”  

The Agency’s findings follow an August 19 Associated Press report describing a secret agreement between Iran and the IAEA that would allow Iranian officials, rather than IAEA inspectors, to take environmental samples from Parchin.  According to a draft of the agreement published by the AP, IAEA inspectors would not be permitted physical access to Parchin and would rely upon some kind of remote monitoring to oversee environmental sampling.  Further, Iran would be required to provide only a limited number of environmental samples from a specific building at Parchin, plus an unspecified number of samples at two points near the site.  Iran would also provide the Agency with photos and videos of the locations in question.  According to the leaked agreement, the sampling “will be carried out using Iran's authenticated equipment, consistent with technical specifications provided by the Agency, and the Agency's containers and seals.”  The Agency “will ensure the technical authenticity” of the sampling, though the agreement does not offer further details on how this would be accomplished.

The agreement is intended to resolve the IAEA’s investigation of long-standing allegations that Iran built a large explosives chamber at Parchin to conduct experiments that the Agency says would be “strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development.”  This is one of a dozen specific allegations included in the IAEA’s on-going investigation of the “possible military dimensions” (PMD) to Iran’s nuclear program.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano expressed concern about the implications of the AP report in a statement on August 20: “I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran.  Such statements misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work.”  Amano maintained that while he could not divulge the details of the confidential agreement with Iran, “I can state that the arrangements are technically sound and consistent with our long-established practices. They do not compromise our safeguards standards in any way.”  The IAEA, however, has not disputed the authenticity of the draft agreement published by the Associated Press.  

Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards at the IAEA, has been the most prominent critic of the IAEA’s special arrangement for inspecting Parchin.  In a report for the Iran Task Force, Heinonen argued, “If the reporting is accurate, these procedures appear to be risky, departing significantly from well-established and proven safeguards practices.”  Inspectors, according to Heinonen, “must ensure the chain of verification,” including “the physical presence of IAEA inspectors where the collection was done.”  Heinonen also raised the concern that Parchin “will likely become the standard for access given to other military and suspect sites” under the broader nuclear agreement with Iran.

Those who accept the arrangement present two arguments.  The first is, essentially, “trust the IAEA”:  even if IAEA inspectors do not themselves take the swipe samples at Parchin, the Agency’s remote monitoring and other practices are sufficiently robust to maintain the integrity of the verification process.  In an August 21 op-ed for The Hill, Mark Hibbs and Thomas Shea, a former safeguards official at the IAEA, concluded, “While IAEA inspectors are subject to some limitations, these will not prevent the IAEA from drawing conclusions which are free from manipulation or obfuscation.”  The second response is to dismiss the importance of Parchin because inspectors are unlikely to uncover anything.  Previous inspections have failed to yield a smoking gun, and after years of sanitization work another IAEA visit will most likely not produce a different result.  For this camp, access to Parchin is not important enough to risk blowing up the larger nuclear deal.

IAEA access to military sites and other sensitive locations has, in the past, been the subject of contentious negotiation and compromise.  Under the principle of “managed access,” countries are allowed to protect proprietary or commercially sensitive information from inspectors, for example by shrouding some equipment or turning off computers. 

There appears to be little precedent, however, for managed access procedures in which IAEA inspectors are physically restricted from a site completely and monitor verification activities remotely.   In the case of Iran, between 2003 and 2005, negotiations over access to military sites, including Kohladouz, Lavisan-Shian, and Parchin, led to IAEA visits and in-person environmental sampling.  In Brazil, negotiations over IAEA access to Resende, an enrichment facility containing centrifuges designed and installed by the Navy, led to a 2004 agreement which reportedly restricts inspectors’ visual access to the centrifuges but allows visual access to supporting piping, and full access to feed and withdrawal stations.  Arms control analyst Jeffrey Lewis has raised the example of South Africa as a precedent for Parchin.  In 1993, South Africans destroyed nuclear test shafts in the Kalahari desert and video-recorded their destruction for IAEA review.  Yet an IAEA team visited and assessed the site before the video-recorded demolition and made a subsequent visit to confirm that the test shafts had been rendered useless.

Beyond the specifics of the investigation into past activities at Parchin, the reported arrangement could set a bad precedent for limiting access to other undeclared sites once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is implemented.  The White House’s statements on Parchin also signal that resolving the IAEA’s PMD investigation is not a priority for the administration.  It is now clear that the P5+1 has left to the IAEA the challenge of clearing up Iran's past nuclear record.  Responding to the AP report, the White House stated: “The United States has already made our judgment about the past.  We are focused on moving forward.”  This statement is consistent with Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in June that the United States is “not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another […] We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.”