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Iran's Parchin complex: Why are nuclear inspectors so focused on it?

The IAEA's determination to gain access to Parchin, an Iranian military complex that may hold clues to past weapons-related work, is unusual and could jeopardize its credibility.

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The Parchin data doesn't add up for Robert Kelley, an American veteran inspector of the IAEA who retired three years ago.

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"It doesn't hold together, it doesn't make sense. So I can't understand why Amano would bet the Agency's reputation on [Parchin]," says Mr. Kelley, contacted in Vienna.  

The hydrodynamic experiments described in the IAEA report are rarely conducted in a cylinder or any confined space, says Kelley, and would have used several hundred kilograms of explosives – not just the 70 kgs (154 lbs) the IAEA says the container was supposedly designed for in the 1990s.

"Would somebody in 1998 have been expecting to try to fool the IAEA in 2012?" asks Kelley. "That's kind of the logic of all this, that [the Iranians] are going to build a container because the IAEA is coming."

The 70-kgs figure is already “extremely high” compared to similar containment chambers around the world, says Kelley, and “is a red flag itself.”

Any inspection should clear up the confusion at Parchin, especially if uranium was used, because it could not be hidden from the IAEA’s sensitive instruments and detection techniques.

"If you do do an experiment in a container with uranium and explosives, that container would be highly contaminated," notes Kelley. "You can't get rid of the traces of uranium, and once you open the lid of the container, to clean it out and do another experiment, the building you're in will be totally contaminated with tiny traces of uranium that are very hard to hide."

The Associated Press in early March anonymously quoted "diplomats" accredited to the IAEA claiming that Iran had been trying to erase evidence of tests at Parchin, and sanitizing the site with haulage trucks and heavy equipment.

Heinonen says the commercial satellite imagery he has seen of Parchin showed "no immediate concern," and that heavy-equipment use was "far away" from the suspect building.

No 'real-time picture' of Iran's nuclear program

The IAEA regularly accounts for all of Iran’s declared nuclear material to ensure that none of it has been diverted for weapons use. Among that material is uranium, and its enriched versions that, when taken above the 20 percent that Iran has achieved, to 90 percent, is suitable for weapons.

But also in every report, the IAEA says it can’t confirm that Iran’s programs are entirely peaceful, because Iran considers intelligence reports provided by the US, Israel, and others – which detail alleged past weapons-related work – to be forgeries that it will not address further.

"I don't think that anyone has a real-time picture on the Iranian nuclear program; all the time you are dealing with information that is half a year old, one year old," says Heinonen.

Iran has also taken steps to protect it facilities, first by building the large Natanz enrichment plant underground, and then moving its most sensitive enrichment work to Fordow, a small site buried under a mountain and far less vulnerable to US or Israelis bombs.

Since 2009, Iran has also announced they would build 10 more enrichment sites. Why would Iran do it?

"It has a couple benefits: You distribute your assets, so if someone attacks they have to go to 10 targets in order to achieve what they want," suggests Heinonen. "Second, it takes a while for intelligence to find these places, so you can build them for quite a long time in secret before it would be found out."

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