By Gareth Porter. This article was first published on IPS News.
Diplomats from an unidentified country and a Washington research organisation considered close to the International Atomic Energy Agency have alleged in recent weeks that Iran has covered two buildings at a military site to hide a clean-up of evidence of nuclear weapons related testing.
But two former intelligence analysts with experience in interpreting satellite photographs of military facilities say the coverings on the two buildings in published images of the site don’t appear to be aimed at hiding anything.
The images show bright pink coverings on the buildings, which the former intelligence officers say are a clear signal of an Iranian desire to focus U.S. and Western attention on the site – probably to ensure that it would not be focused on activities at another site at the huge Parchin military base.
Meanwhile, the IAEA has not been able to explain why Iran would only begin a clean-up of the Parchin site after the IAEA requested access in January 2012 if it was hiding activities linked to a Ukrainian scientist whose work with Iran had been revealed in the news media beginning as early as October 2008.
The site in question at Parchin military base is where the IAEA said in a report last November that Iran had installed a large explosives containment vessel supposedly to test nuclear weapons designs. The IAEA has been requesting access to the base to see if there is evidence of such tests.
Former IAEA team leader in Iraq Robert Kelley, one of the few genuine specialists in the world on remote detection of nuclear activities, has noted a host of reasons for doubting that such a vessel ever resided at the Parchin site.
The latest episode in the months-long media story of alleged Iranian “sanitisation” of the site at Parchin began with an Aug. 22 story by the Associated Press Vienna correspondent, George Jahn, who has long served as a conduit for a stories leaked by Israeli officials.
The story quoted two “senior diplomats” from countries which the writer could not identify as saying that the “sanitisation” of the site by Iran to remove evidence of past nuclear weapons-related research was now in its “final stages”, and that some of the clean-up was being “hidden from spy satellite views by screens set up over the site”.
Two days later, satellite images of the site dated Aug. 15 published by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) showed that the “screens over the site” were actually pink coverings on two buildings.
A Reuters article published earlier that day reported unidentified “diplomatic sources” saying the building which the IAEA believed housed an explosives chamber had been wrapped in “scaffolding and tarpaulin” that was “hiding any sanitisation or other activity there from satellite cameras”.
ISIS director David Albright speculated in an Aug. 24 commentary that the purpose of the pink coverings on the buildings “could be to conceal further cleanup activity from overhead satellites or to contain the activity inside”. He even suggested that the pink tarp “could provide a cover for the demolition of the buildings, or portions of them while also containing the spread of potentially contaminated debris.”
The Aug. 30 IAEA report, after listing the “activities and resultant changes” at the site since January, referred to the images as showing two buildings had been “shrouded” and declared that its “ability to verify the information on which its concerns are based has been adversely affected”.
The former intelligence analysts, however, have told IPS the suggestion the pink shrouds are meant to hide clean-up activities from satellite cameras lacks credibility. Both asked not to be identified in this article.
One of the former officers, who is familiar with efforts by foreign states seeking to cloak military activities from U.S. spy satellites said, “Someone in Iran wanted the two buildings to be imaged.”
The pink covers suggest “misdirection”, he said, likening it to past efforts by the former Soviet Union and North Korea to focus the attention of U.S. intelligence on a specific site in order to keep it away from activities elsewhere.
Another former intelligence analyst with expertise on photo imagery said the pink shrouds “are exactly the opposite of concealment activities”. The Iranians “know perfectly well that the site is being imaged”, the former officer said.
“This is the ‘shiny object’ that the Iranians want ISIS, the gullible Western press and others to pay attention to,” he explained, most likely to distract attention from activities elsewhere.
New information in the Aug. 30 IAEA report further undermines the credibility of the larger allegation that Iran has been trying to “sanitise” the site in question in 2012. The report notes that the agency notified Iran of that location only in January 2012, and that satellite imagery of the site for the period from February 2005 to January 2012 shows “virtually no activity at or near the building housing the containment vessel”.
If Iran were actually hiding nuclear experiments using an explosives containment vessel at the site, it would have been forced to take action on the site after October 2008, when it learned that Western intelligence agencies had already identified the Ukranian scientist the IAEA claims helped build the container.
The New York Times reported Oct. 9, 2008 that IAEA officials were “investigating whether a Russian scientist helped Iran conduct complex experiments on how to detonate a nuclear weapon, according to European and American officials.”
That was an obvious reference Vyacheslav Danilenko, a Ukrainian who had worked for decades in the Soviet nuclear weapons complex, although he specialised in nanaodiamond production from explosives, before working in Iran from 1996 to 2000.
Danilenko’s first name and first initial of his last name, as well as the fact that he had worked in Iran in the late 1990s, were published in Der Spiegel Jun. 17, 2010.
If Danilenko had indeed been collaborating with Iran on a containment vessel for tests of nuclear weapons designs at Parchin, those news media reports would have triggered Iranian efforts to clean up the site years earlier. But nothing happened – even after the IAEA November report, which discussed the alleged vessel – until the IAEA informed Iran that it wanted to visit Parchin and provided Iran with the specific location in January.
Robert Kelley, who has been top nuclear inspector for the IAEA and project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory and director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Remove Sensing Laboratory, has expressed strong scepticism about the idea that the site shown in a series of satellite images has anything to do with high explosives, much less nuclear weapons-related work.
“The building in question is not a classical HE (high explosives) building, that is for sure,” Kelley told this writer in late May.
Kelley and the two former intelligence officers agree that the building is far too close to a major divided highway to be involved in such sensitive testing activity. The ex-intelligence analysts also said there are no special security features as would be expected of a top secret facility.
In an article in Jane’s Intelligence Review Jun. 18, Kelley noted that the presence of a berm only on one side of the building is consistent with standard radiation shielding for an X-ray machine to check the quality of missile components manufactured at Parchin rather than high explosives experiments.
Kelley also noted a number of reasons why the story of the containment vessel at Parchin doesn’t add up.
If Iran were testing nuclear weapons designs, Kelley wrote, it is doubtful that it would have done so with a containment vessel such as the one described by the IAEA, noting that the U.S., Soviet Union, China, Iraq and South Africa did such experiments in the open in remote secret locations, because it enabled them to make more rapid progress.
The UK used a containment vessel, he wrote, only because of the absence of such remote locations.
David Albright has argued that Iran needed the vessel to hide its experiments from spy satellites, but Kelley pointed out that Iran could have simply used a temporary tent to cover the experiments.
*Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.