(CNSNews.com) – As a deadline draws nearer for a nuclear deal with Iran, a leading nonproliferation and security think tank reports that new satellite imagery of a military facility near Tehran shows evidence of activity likely designed to conceal past banned nuclear-related activity.
The facility in question is Parchin, a location where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suspects Iran conducted experiments in the past on nuclear detonators.
Despite its repeated denials that it has ever sought to develop nuclear weapons, Iran has for years refused to allow IAEA inspectors to visit Parchin.
The work evidently being done at the site may make it impossible for inspectors – if ever they are permitted to visit – to determine whether Iran carried out proscribed nuclear weapon-related activity there.
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in a report this week that satellite images of Parchin, captured on January 31, “indicate that Iran may be engaging in new asphalting at the site, efforts likely aimed at concealing past banned activities.”
The images were obtained for ISIS by Digital Globe, a commercial satellite imaging company.
The report, by ISIS president David Albright, research analyst Serena Kelleher-Vergantini and interning research associate Christopher Coughlin, compared the new images to 14 others taken at the same location at various times since 2011.
It recalled that the IAEA has said in previous quarterly reports on Iran that asphalting and other activities at Parchin “have significantly changed the site and impacted the ability of IAEA inspectors to collect environmental samples and other evidence that it could use to determine whether nuclear weapons-related activities once took place there.”
At stake are the so-called “possible military dimension” (PMD) issues – questions meant to establish whether Iran at any time, past or present, has carried out work with applications for developing an atomic bomb.
Back in Nov. 2011, the IAEA said there was “credible” evidence that Iran carried out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” until the end of 2003 – and that there were indications that some of those activities had continued after 2003 and “may still be ongoing.”
Among the alleged PMD activities enumerated in that report was work on detonator designs, including detonator devices that could be used in a nuclear weapon and fit in a ballistic missile warhead.
‘The Iranians have abided by the agreement’
The interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), signed by Iran and six powers in November 2013, refers to the PMD questions, stating that Iran and its negotiating partners “will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”
That interim deal is meant to be replaced by a comprehensive agreement, with a late March deadline for a political agreement, followed by a June 30 deadlines for the technical details to be wrapped up.
Despite Iran’s refusal to allow the IAEA to visit Parchin, the Obama administration maintains that Tehran has both cooperated with the IAEA and complied with its JPOA undertakings.
“During this period of time [between the signing of the JPOA and now], issues have been clarified, gaps have been narrowed, the Iranians have abided by the agreement,” President Obama told reporters at the White House on Monday.
“So this is not a circumstance in which, by talking, they’ve been stalling and meanwhile advancing their program,” he added.
Obama cited Iran’s dilution of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium, but made no reference to the PMD issues.
Last November, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to justify an extension in the talks by highlighting progress, including in Iranian cooperation with the IAEA.
“A year ago, inspectors had limited access to Iran’s nuclear program,” Kerry said at the time. “Today, IAEA inspectors have daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities and a far deeper understanding of Iran’s program.”
Like Obama this week, Kerry said nothing about Parchin or the PMD questions.
‘Past and possibly on-going nuclear weapons work’
ISIS says failure to settle the PMD issues is significant because of what it says about future verification. Iran has a history of hiding its nuclear activity and carrying out covert nuclear procurement activities.
“Parchin continues to be a key outstanding issue to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in resolving its concerns about Iran’s past and possibly on-going nuclear weapons work and military fuel cycle activities,” the ISIS report said.
“Iran has yet to grant the IAEA access to the site, provide information about alleged activities at this site, allow interviews of officials linked to activities at the site, or permit visits to other sites linked to the alleged military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programs.”
Any final agreement that sidesteps Iran’s addressing the PMD questions “would undermine the verifiability of a long-term agreement, and thus the credibility of a comprehensive deal,” ISIS said.
ISIS counseled that unless significant progress is made in resolving the Parchin and other PMD concerns, “no key economic or financial sanction on Iran should be lifted.”
In a speech in Jakarta late last month, IAEA director-general Yukiya Amano stressed the centrality of the PMD issues.
“In addressing the Iran nuclear issue, two things are important,” he said. “First, with the cooperation of Iran, the Agency needs to clarify issues with possible military dimensions to the satisfaction of member-states …”
A year ago, the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the talks on a comprehensive agreement would depend on a resolution of IAEA questions about the PMD issues, including the activities at Parchin.
“In the Joint Plan of Action we have required that Iran come clean on its past actions as part of any comprehensive agreement,” she said.
The advocacy group, United Against Nuclear Iran has stated that any negotiated agreement with Iran that fails to resolve all of the PMD questions will be “a bad deal.”
The administration has pledged that it would rather end up with no agreement than with a bad one.