To the most strident opponents of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the suspicious behavior at a military base about 12 miles southeast of Tehran has become a rallying call to defeat the accord, especially as it now appears that Iranian officials may be allowed to take their own environmental samples at the site and turn them over to inspectors.
It did not take long for the speaker of the House, John A. Boehner, to question whether “anyone at the White House has seen the final documents” establishing rules for inspections.
Though the International Atomic Energy Agency says it will monitor the collection, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce, declared: “International inspections should be done by international inspectors. Period.”
But as in most debates about the Iran deal, the sound bites — on both sides — do not entirely align with reality, or the complexity of the agreement. And the reality about the Parchin military site is that for all its potency as a political issue as Congress prepares to vote on the accord, it is probably not a place where anyone can learn very much about what progress Iran made toward building an atomic weapon.
From all the evidence that has been made public — and much about the inspection architecture remains classified — Parchin probably was a significant site for nuclear weapons research and experimentation a decade ago. It is suspected of carrying out experiments on high explosives — the kind required to detonate a nuclear weapon.
The suspicions about what once happened at Parchin are so old that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors asked to enter the base in 2004 and actually got inside — once — in November 2005.
They found nothing. But soon after, they concluded they were probably in the wrong buildings, and the Iranians turned down subsequent requests for access.
In the years since, the Parchin site has been bulldozed and rebuilt to the point that evidence of past work likely has vanished.
But it has taken on a new, political importance in recent weeks, as a symbol of whether the I.A.E.A., a United Nations institution, is interested in conducting a real inspection or just checking the box to show that it asked questions, took samples and has taken the issue off the books.
The administration’s inability to describe what it knows about the inspection regime planned for Parchin — which is detailed in a confidential agreement between the agency and Tehran — has created the impression, at least among opponents of the deal, that the White House is hiding exactly how the agreement would be monitored.
That led to a sharp exchange last month between Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, over Mr. Kerry’s refusal to describe the inspection methodology in public. Mr. Kerry said the administration does not have a copy of the agreement, but was aware of its details.
“Even the N.F.L. wouldn’t go along with this,” Mr. Risch said, his voice dripping with sarcasm — perhaps an allusion to letting professional athletes prepare their own samples to prove they are not taking performance-enhancing drugs. After that, the administration provided more classified briefings and even had the director general of the I.A.E.A., Yukiya Amano, visit Capitol Hill to answer questions.
According to people familiar with that briefing, Mr. Amano, a former Japanese diplomat, suggested his agency would be monitoring the Iranians as they collected samples. It was not clear what form international oversight would take, but administration officials, including Mr. Kerry, insist that American technical experts are satisfied.
The issue flared anew when The Associated Press reported it had seen a document that described how Iran would collect the samples at Parchin. It published the text of that document, which was described as an early draft of the agreement, although a former I.A.E.A. official, Tariq Rauf, published an annotated version of the document that called into question the authenticity of the A.P. text.
Mr. Amano, for his part, issued a statement saying: “I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the I.A.E.A. has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran.” He said those statements “misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work.”
But he never described how that work would be conducted, an omission that is bound to keep the discussion alive.
At the core of the dispute is a bargain Mr. Kerry made to get the Iran deal: He gave Tehran a pass on admitting its past work on nuclear weapons designs in return for a far stricter regime going forward.
Mr. Kerry insisted at one point that the United States had “perfect knowledge” of Iran’s past activities, based on the intelligence work of the United States and allies, and did not need the I.A.E.A.’s confirmation. His negotiating team said it was clear that Iran would never confess to everything it may have done, particularly if that contradicted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s insistence that Iran never worked on nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kerry emphasizes that the inspections for current and future facilities operate under rules enumerated in the nuclear accord, and he argues they are among “the most stringent in history.” In other words, he has said there is one set of inspection regimes for past activity, and a far more critical one for the future.
But some American intelligence officials winced when they heard Mr. Kerry’s “perfect knowledge” line, because they view their information as far less than perfect — and thus so is their knowledge about how close Iran came to design for a weapon. What may turn out to be far more important than what the agency learns, or does not learn, at Parchin is what it learns from documents and scientists who were part of Iran’s nuclear program.
Another confidential agreement between Iran and the international atomic agency lays out how inspectors will be able to resolve a list of 12 detailed questions about “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s past work, going far beyond Parchin. That agreement calls for resolving those questions by December, a herculean task since a serious investigation would require scores of interviews and reviewing complex documentation.
Iran has resisted that for the past four years. But Mr. Kerry told Congress that Iran would have to cooperate before sanctions were lifted. And it is not clear what “cooperation” means — whether the scientists simply have to talk to the inspectors, or actually come clean.
Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector at the I.A.E.A., who led the agency’s team to Parchin in 2005, said last year: “You don’t need to see every nut and bolt, but you are taking a heck of a risk if you don’t establish a baseline of how far they went.”
Several veterans of the Bush administration argue that it is no time to let Iran off the hook “For inspections to be meaningful, Iran would have to completely and correctly declare all its relevant nuclear activities and procurement, past and present,” Will Tobey, the former deputy administrator of the Energy Department’s Nuclear Security Administration, wrote last month in The Wall Street Journal.
That would be a long process, of which Parchin would be a tiny footnote. It is also unlikely to happen, American and European officials say.
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(via NY Times)