Some commentators are annoyed that I haven’t written much about Iran. In my defense, I now direct a nonproliferation program focused on East Asia. Still, they have a point. This post is a small step in that direction.
I wanted to write about the “detonation tank” reportedly at Parchin in Iran, where Iran may have carried out some nuclear weapons work. I am conflicted about the appearance of this information in the press. On the one hand, I believe Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program through 2003 and that Parchin was almost certainly part of that effort. On the other hand, designing an arrangement under which Iran chooses to possess a bomb option rather than an actual bomb is a meditation about what happens in the future. The past is, perhaps, prologue. But not much more: Any deal with Iran is going to have to include either an amnesty for past weapons work or, at least, an agreement to not look to closely into Iran’s past activities.
There is an argument that documenting Iran’s pre-2003 weapons program is an important means of putting pressure on the regime in Tehran. But focusing on the past can be counterproductive. Some Western voices want to focus on the past to prevent an agreement with Iran. The Iranians, too, want to focus on the past — hoping for a clean bill of health while avoiding current and future nuclear activities that are of the most concern to the international community.
It’s an interesting problem. We certainly can’t ignore evidence of past nuclear weapons work in Iran, but nor can we leave our future at the mercy of debates about Iran did more ten years ago. I don’t have much to say about how to strike that balance, although I think Mark Fitzpatrick’s little essay on the “Parchin Trap” starts to surface some of these tensions.
Let’s be clear about what this image is, and what it is not. This is a visualization “based on information from a person who had seen the chamber at the Parchin military site.”
There is nothing untoward about using verbal descriptions to create images, although the authors should label them clearly and, as consumers, we need to remember that one can make a pretty drawings of unicorns, mobile bioweapons trailers and other things that do not exist. If the IAEA or the US intelligence community produced this image, they should say so.
There are some curious aspects of the drawing. The doors caught my attention. I have not made a comprehensive survey of large “detonation tanks,” but every image I have seen involves a more robust method to seal off the chamber. You know the colloquialism “blow the doors off,” right? Well, I suspect that’s why explosive chambers don’t usually have doors.
Then there is the issue of the scale. According to the Associated Press, the diameter of the tank is 4.6 meters. This is not a typo, since the diameter agrees with the stated volume of tank. By my reckoning, that makes the apparent door about 1.2 meters tall — a little under 4 feet. Unless the Iranians are using Oompa Loompas to build nuclear weapons, I have some questions.
(Totally off topic, but this still absolutely looks like an Oompa Loompa handling a pit, right?)
Having said that, we have pretty decent evidence that the Iranians must have some sort of detonation chamber on site at Parchin.
Most of that evidence surrounds one Vyacheslav Danilenko, a high explosives expert from the Soviet nuclear weapons complex, who seems to have confirmed to the IAEA that he was in Iran from 1996-2002.
For all you ever wanted to know about Danilenko: Paul-Anton Krueger wrote a 2010 profile of Danilenko — identifying him with the psuedonym ” Viktor Cherenkov” — in Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Erich Follath and Holger Stark wrote a similar profile a month later in Der Speigel, identifying Danilenko as “Wjatscheslaw D.” (The full text of both stories are available in the comments.) After an IAEA report highlighted the role of a “foreign expert” in 2011 — and the usual sources fingered Danilenko as that expert — David Albright prepared a nice dossier on the man that formed the basis for a story by Joby Warrick in the Washington Post.
Whether Parchin’s detonation chamber looks like the spiffy computer-generated image or the rather less glittering one at Danilenko’s firm in Ukraine is less important than the fact that Iran was conducting work of some kind. At issue are technical questions of regarding the size of the chamber — enough for 70 kilograms of high explosives — and whether that looks more like nanodiamond research or early experiments on nuclear weapon hydrodynamics.
I believe Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003, just like the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate said. I see no reason to doubt that Iran shut down the program, nor any evidence that it has been restarted. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Iran ended activities associated with a covert weapons program near the end of 2003, then tried to hide the evidence at places like Lavisan-Shian.
Reports of recent efforts to clear the site at Parchin, now that the IAEA is seeking additional access there, are hardly surprising. (Cheryl Rofer had a nice rundown on why one might want to scrape that building clean — and she used to do this for a living.)
Parchin has long been reported as the site where Iran carried out its implosion testing. Why is everyone so confident, Cheryl asked me, that this building in particular is the building the IAEA wants to access? Because sources in the United States government and the IAEA are leaking it to us!
I presume that the people who pointed this building out to David Albright are the same people who tried to interest a reporter friend of mine in the same building. He asked me about it, but in the end all I could see was the construction of an earthen berm. David, on the other hand, got some images of the building under construction, which he thinks shows the foundation for the detonation tank. So, there you go. Slab and berm. The end is nigh.
I understand that the IAEA must pursue evidence of Iran’s nuclear program before 2003, even if I am already convinced on that score. But, going forward, what I want to know is whether that work continued after 2003. The evidence for that seems much more ambiguous to me. IAEA GOV2011/65 cites “information from two Member States” indicating that “after 2003, Iran engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version of the hemispherical initiation system and high explosive charge referred to in paragraph 43 above, albeit in connection with non-nuclear applications.”
That suggests, to me, that Iran has tried to keep post-2003 work consistent with nanodiamond research. Of course, I don’t think Iran gives a fig about nanodiamonds. Iran is keeping open its option to resume weaponization work if and when a decision is taken to build a nuclear weapon. Which is totally what I would do if I were Iran’s Supreme Leader.
By the way, everyone seems to forget that the IAEA visited Parchin in September 2004, although it was a different part of the site. Fars News has a funny, though perhaps not necessarily true, description of the visit:
These parts of Amano’s report are the result of a job carried out by Ferederic Claude, an agent of the French Intelligence Service, who had earlier been in charge of satellite imaging at the IAEA and is now Amano’s advisor. It is noteworthy that Claude, accompanied by IAEA Deputy Director General for Safeguards Olli Heinonen, brought these pictures to Tehran a few years ago and asked for a visit to Parchin facility. In response, Iran allowed the IAEA inspectors to visit any part of Parchin that they wanted and carry out sampling tests. The result of that visit revealed that first, what Mr. Claude called a metal bunker or container for building bombs was actually a metal toilet in Parchin, and second the samplings showed no nuclear activity in Parchin and that’s why the IAEA closed the case with Parchin facility.
Now, my recollection was that Iran did not “allow the IAEA inspectors to visit any part of Parchin that they wanted,” but rather allowed the IAEA to select one area out of four identified and, if I recall correctly, five buildings within that area. This is a very large complex with hundreds of buildings and underground structures. Under Iran’s rules of access, I’d be surprised if the IAEA found the right building.
I asked Heinonen about that visit, including whether he remembered the toilet story, but didn’t ask for his comment on the record. I will ask again.