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Explainer: Why Do UN Inspectors Want Access To Iran's Parchin Military Complex?

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech to Iran's Atomic Energy Organization scientists during a ceremony to mark National Nuclear Day in Tehran in April 2012.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech to Iran's Atomic Energy Organization scientists during a ceremony to mark National Nuclear Day in Tehran in April 2012.
Parchin, a large military complex located southeast of Tehran, is one of the key pieces of the puzzle that is Iran’s nuclear program -- a puzzle the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has been long trying to solve. On June 8 in Vienna, UN nuclear negotiators will sit down with Iranian officials to discuss their suspicions about military aspects of Iran's nuclear program. With Parchin on the agenda, here's some of what makes it a likely topic of discussion.

Why is Parchin so important to UN inspectors?

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believe that more than a decade ago, Iran conducted experiments there with high explosives in support of nuclear weapons development.

In a 2011 report, the IAEA said it had information that Iran placed “a large explosives containment vessel” in Parchin in 2000 and constructed a building around it. The testing is believed to have taken place in a vessel or chamber which the IAEA says was designed to contain the detonation of up to 70 kilograms of high explosives.

Iranian officials say Parchin is a conventional military facility and dismiss reports about undeclared activities at the site as “childish” and “ridiculous.” Tehran has long insisted all its nuclear activities are peaceful.

What has been happening recently there?

Satellite photos of the site published last month by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) appear to show intensified activities believed to be aimed at cleansing the site.

David Albright, ISIS’s founder and himself a former IAEA inspector, says the images show the razing of two buildings at the controversial site.

“Objects started to appear outside the main building of interest within this site that had a common perimeter, water was flowing across the road from a corner of the building and then subsequently two buildings have been torn down that could be support buildings but are two small buildings within the perimeter," Albright says.

"The perimeter fence now appears to be gone and it looks like Iran may be leveling the site, ripping down everything and then [digging] out the ground.“

What did the IAEA find the last time it had access?

IAEA inspectors visited several locations at Parchin in 2005. It said afterward that results of analyses of environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material at those locations. But inspectors didn’t visit the building where the detonation chamber is believed to have been placed.

What would a full IAEA inspection accomplish?

Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director-general, says inspector access to the site would help clear up doubts about Iran's nuclear intentions.

“It will be a good sign if we finally start to answer what was this military dimension, find out what was included, see whether they are within the framework of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] or not," Heinonen says. "If not, then Iran should remove some of the pieces of equipment and then build confidence about the peaceful nature of the program."

Albright says Iranian permission to allow a full inspection of the site would go a long way toward easing the international standoff.

“Parchin is a problem for all sides right now, but it certainly would be helpful if Iran would say, 'Yes, the IAEA can visit Parchin and visit the sites it wants to visit,'" Albright says. "One thing that wouldn’t be helpful is if [Iran] said, ‘Well you can come and visit this site which was demolished but you can’t go anywhere else.’”

How likely is it that inspectors will be allowed in?

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbassi Davani, said last month that the reasons and documents provided by the IAEA have still not convinced Tehran to allow a visit.

But on June 6, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, appeared to suggest that the Islamic republic would allow a visit to Parchin*. He said a visit to Parchin by inspectors would produce "shameful results" for those who suspect Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

CORRECTION: This text was modified to clarify reference to Parchin to avoid the suggestion that it is a "base."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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