Photos of Iran's Parchin site lack
credibility By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - News stories about satellite
photographs suggesting efforts by Iran to
"sanitize" a military site that the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said may have been
used to test nuclear weapons have added yet
another layer to widely held suspicion that Iran
must indeed be hiding a covert nuclear weapons
But the story is suspect, in part
because it is based on evidence that could only be
ambiguous, at best. The claim does not reflect US
intelligence, and a prominent think tank that has
published satellite photography related to past
controversies surrounding Iran's nuclear program
has not found any photographs supporting it.
The original Parchin clean-up story by
Associated Press correspondent George Jahn,
published on March 7, reported that
two unnamed diplomats
from an unidentified country or countries - it was
not made clear how many were involved - told him
that satellite photos "appear to show trucks and
earth-moving vehicles" at the site.
two diplomats said they suspected Iran "may be
trying to erase evidence" of tests of a "neutron
device used to set off a nuclear explosion"
because "some of the vehicles at the scene
appeared to be hauling trucks and other equipment
suited to carting off potentially contaminated
soil from the site".
However, a third
diplomat told Jahn he "could not confirm that",
and Jahn was shown no photographs to back up the
description offered by his two anonymous sources.
Three other diplomats with whom Jahn spoke were
apparently unaware of such photographs.
The satellite photographs described to
Jahn did not come from US intelligence. Former CIA
counterterrorism official Phil Giraldi told IPS
that a US intelligence official had confirmed to
him that the officials in question were not
talking about intelligence provided by US
US State Department
spokesperson Victoria Nuland refused to answer
specific questions at a March 8 briefing about
whether US intelligence had such satellite photos
or whether the US believes that such intelligence
exists. She referred to such intelligence only in
the conditional tense.
"Any evidence that
Iran is seeking to cover its tracks would raise
only further concern about the true nature of the
program," she said.
That means that the
officials were either from Israel or one of its
three European allies - the British, French and
Germans - who have been working closely with
Israel to undermine and finally force a revision
of the US intelligence community's 2007 conclusion
that Iran has not worked on developing a nuclear
weapon since 2003.
Israel provided a
series of documents to the IAEA after that
intelligence estimate - as recounted by former
IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei in his
2011 memoir - aimed at proving that Iran had
secretly tested a detonator for an implosion
device and had worked on a neutron initiator as
recently as 2007.
The timing of the story
- just after the possibility of an IAEA inspection
visit to the site had been suggested by Iran - is
also suspect. The allegation of a clean-up at the
site would provide a convenient explanation for
the failure of the IAEA to find evidence to
support the suggestion in its November 2011 report
that Iran constructed a large containment vessel
for hydrodynamic tests of nuclear weapons at
Reflecting the degree to which
the alleged intelligence has been given credence
by being amplified without any questioning by the
rest of the news media, an AFP report Saturday
suggested that, even if Iran now agrees to an IAEA
visit to the Parchin site, "it will find itself
accused of having cleaned up the site beforehand".
Further casting doubt on the motive behind
the story, the same allegation was made to the
same AP reporter more than three-and-a-half months
earlier. On November 22, Jahn reported that a
single official of an unidentified state had
"cited intelligence from his home country, saying
it appears that Tehran is trying cover its tracks
by sanitizing the site and removing any evidence
of nuclear research and development".
assertion came in the wake of the IAEA board of
governors meeting in November, as the IAEA
Safeguards Department was planning to request a
visit to the site at Parchin, where the agency had
just reported nuclear weapons-related testing had
been carried out in a large explosive containment
chamber, according to unnamed "Member States".
The claim of satellite intelligence
showing Iranian efforts to clean up a site at
Parchin has not been supported by the Institute
for Science and International Security (ISIS), the
Washington think tank that had defended
allegations in last November's IAEA report about
foreign expertise having assisted in the alleged
construction of a containment vessel at Parchin in
Paul Brannan, a specialist on
interpretation of satellite photography for ISIS,
told the New York Times that he had looked at many
photos of Parchin but so far had not found any
photographs of the "specific site" - meaning the
site at which the unnamed officials had claimed
there were equipment and vehicles indicating
possible removal of evidence of past tests.
But Brannan went even further to say he
could not find any photographs of sites at Parchin
that suggested clean-up. He told the Times the
presence of various kinds of equipment in the
vicinity is not an indication of removal of
evidence by Iran.
"There is no way to know
whether or not the activity you see in a
particular satellite image is cleansing or just
regular work." Brannan added, "There's a lot of
activity there - always."
The new alarm
over alleged satellite images recalls the
accusation by the George W Bush administration in
close consultation with Israel in 2004 that Iran
was using high explosives to test nuclear weapons
ISIS Executive Director David
Albright told interviewer Scott Horton of Antiwar
Radio in July 2009 that he had "gotten a tip" in
September 2004 that high explosives testing at
Parchin "could be used for nuclear weapons".
ISIS then published a series of satellite
photographs that the organization said were
"consistent" with facilities for such nuclear
The satellite images were then
cited by undersecretary of state John Bolton as
alarming evidence of covert Iranian nuclear
weapons work. The United States and its Western
allies put strong pressure on the IAEA to get Iran
to agree to a visit to Parchin.
and the IAEA had only vague suspicions rather than
hard intelligence to go on. The IAEA asked to
visit four entirely different areas of the
24-square-mile (6,215 hectare) Parchin facility
for places that Israeli intelligence believed were
consistent with some kind of nuclear-related
The Iranians insisted
that the IAEA inspectors could only visit one area
per visit, even though they were allowed to visit
five different buildings of their own choosing
each time. The result was embarrassing visits in
January 2005 and again in November that found
nothing to justify the suspicions.
IAEA mission to Parchin that concedes that the
information it had been given by those unnamed
member states was false would deal a serious blow
to the efforts of Israel and its European allies
to refute the 2007 US intelligence estimate.
Gareth Porter is an
investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.