David Albright is founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
Chico Marx said: “Who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said over the weekend that my organization, the Institute for Science and International Security, was spreading lies when we published satellite imagery that showed renewed, concerning activity at the Parchin military site near Tehran. This site is linked by Western intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to past work on nuclear weapons. But like Chico, instead of acknowledging the concern, the Iranians chose to deny the visible evidence in commercial satellite imagery. Iran’s comments would be mirthful if the topic were not so serious.
Zarif is also calling U.S. intelligence officials and members of Congress liars. They are the original source of the information both about renewed activity at Parchin and concerns about that activity. All we did was publish satellite imagery showing this activity and restate the obvious concern.
Moreover, this information about renewed activity at Parchin does not come from opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the United States, five other world powers and Iran, as Zarif suggested. We are neutral on whether the agreement should be implemented and have made that position clear for weeks. The U.S. intelligence community is hardly opposed to the deal. Iran’s attempts to dismiss this concern as the work of the deal’s foes also is just wrong.
Concern about Parchin has become more urgent now that there is a debate raging over whether the IAEA will have adequate access to this site under the terms of its deal with Iran. It would be irresponsible not to worry about reports that suggest that Iran could be again sanitizing the site to thwart environmental sampling that could reveal past nuclear weapons activities there. This concern is further heightened because Iran has demanded to do this sampling itself instead of letting the IAEA do it. Such an arrangement is unprecedented and risky, and will be even more so if Iran continues to sanitize the site. In the cases of the Iranian Kalaye Electric site and the North Korean plutonium separation plant at Yongbyon, the success of sampling that showed undeclared activities depended on samples being taken at non-obvious locations identified during previous IAEA visits inside buildings. The IAEA will not be able to visit Parchin until after the samples are taken, and it remains doubtful that the inspectors will be able to take additional samples.
Some of this can be written off to Zarif’s volatility. At one point during the negotiations, he yelled so loudly at Secretary of State John F. Kerry that those outside the room could hear him. He obviously angers easily. But he is also one of the more reasonable Iranian government officials. I can remember in the late 1990s discussions with Iranian government and nuclear officials in New York where the Iranians vehemently stated, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they did not have any gas centrifuge programs. I was presenting the evidence that they did, in fact, have a centrifuge program, one in fact aided by Pakistan, and at one of these meetings, Zarif quietly said to me that he had always told me that Iran had the entire fuel cycle — technical language admitting to an enrichment program. His willingness to admit the obvious gave me hope that the crisis over Iran’s program could be solved diplomatically. But on Parchin, his words appear to reflect Iranian government intransigence on its past nuclear weapons program. Its action is an assault on the integrity and prospects of the nuclear deal.
Iran’s reaction shows that it may be drawing a line at Parchin. Resolving the Parchin issue is central to the IAEA’s effort to resolve concerns about Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons by the end of the year, but Parchin is not the only site and activity involved in this crucial issue. The IAEA needs to visit other sites and interview a range of scientists and officials. Instead of allowing this needed access, Iran appears to be continuing its policy of total denial, stating that the concerns are merely Western falsifications and fantasies. The United States recently reasserted that it believes Iran had a nuclear weapons program and stated that it knows a considerable amount about it. So, if Iran sticks to its strategy, one can expect an impasse that includes Iran refusing to allow the IAEA the access it needs to sites and scientists within the coming months.
U.S. officials have stated that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action requires Iran to address concerns about its past work on nuclear weapons prior to the lifting of sanctions. However, Iran may argue otherwise, and one could easily conclude that its recent actions are the start of such a reinterpretation of the agreement. The United States and Congress should clearly and publicly confirm, and Congress should support with legislation, that if Iran does not address the IAEA’s concerns about the past military dimensions of its nuclear programs, U.S. sanctions will not be lifted. To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the nuclear deal.