The ink wasn’t even dry on the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal when U.S. intelligence officials said satellite imagery clearly showed Iran beginning the process of removing evidence of nuclear activity at the Parchin military base.
Parchin has long been suspected of conducting nuclear research, specifically an attempt to develop a “nuclear trigger.” A building on the base has been used for explosives research and it is believed that as far back as 2003, Iran was conducting implosion experiments there.
Implosion is the trigger used on the Nagasaki plutonium bomb. A sphere of plutonium the size of a grapefruit is squeezed down to the size of a tennis ball using conventional explosives and special “lenses” that uniformly direct all the explosive energy inward. The squeezing brings the plutonium mass to criticality, and along with other initiators, detonates the bomb.
Iran has consistently refused access to Parchin by the IAEA, but as part of the nuclear agreement, will allow an inspection before October 15.
Intelligence officials and lawmakers who have seen the new evidence, which is still classified, told us that satellite imagery picked up by U.S. government assets in mid- and late July showed that Iran had moved bulldozers and other heavy machinery to the Parchin site and that the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Iranian government was working to clean up the site ahead of planned inspections by the IAEA.
The intelligence community shared its findings with lawmakers and some Congressional staff late last week, four people who have seen the evidence told us. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence briefed lawmakers about the evidence Monday, three U.S. senators said.
“I am familiar with it,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told us Tuesday. “I think it’s up to the administration to draw their conclusions. Hopefully this is something they will speak on, since it is in many ways verified by commercial imagery. And their actions seem to be against the grain of the agreement.”
Burr said Iran’s activities at Parchin complicate the work of the IAEA inspectors who are set to examine the site in the coming months. IAEA’s director general, Yukiya Amano, was in Washington on Wednesday to brief lawmakers behind closed doors about the side agreements.
“They are certainly not going to see the site that existed. Whether that’s a site that can be determined what it did, only the technical experts can do that,” Burr said. “I think it’s a huge concern.”
A senior intelligence official, when asked about the satellite imagery, told us the IAEA was also familiar with what he called “sanitization efforts” since the deal was reached in Vienna, but that the U.S. government and its allies had confidence that the IAEA had the technical means to detect past nuclear work anyway.
Another administration official explained that this was in part because any trace amounts of enriched uranium could not be fully removed between now and Oct. 15, the deadline for Iran to grant access and answer remaining questions from the IAEA about Parchin.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told us Tuesday that while Iran’s activity at Parchin last month isn’t technically a violation of the agreement it signed with the U.S. and other powers, it does call into question Iran’s intention to be forthright about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
Nuclear research could have been conducted at Parchin without using any enriched uranium. Bomb designs, estimated yields of weapons, and a dozen other computer simulations could have been carried out at Parchin along with the implosion tests, and it’s problematic whether or not the IAEA would be able to find evidence of it.
Iran has remained steadfast in its refusal to tell the IAEA what kind of atomic bomb research they have done previously. Supposedly, they finessed the issue in one of the side deals by allowing limited inspections of Parchin and other military sites that are suspected of being part of the Iranian bomb program. With all the gaps in our knowledge of Iranian research and testing in their bomb program over the years, we’re only guessing how really close they are to possessing one.