Earlier this week, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Science and Security published photographs indicating that in early April, not long before negotiations in Istanbul, Iran cleansed its Parchin facility, to which United Nations nuclear inspectors requested and were pointedly denied access in February. The concern had been that Iran was testing military aspects of a nuclear weapons program in Parchin—and the cleansing strongly implies that, at the least, Iran had something to hide. (Iran denies it was doing anything untoward at the facility.)
Yesterday, I spoke to David Albright, the atomic-weapons expert who is ISIS’s founder and head. Similarly to Anthony Cordesman earlier this week, Albright argued that many are focusing on the (still important) question of uranium enrichment and overlooking the issue of a military program. “If Iran showed in a verifiable way that it wasn’t going to build nuclear weapons,” he said, “people wouldn’t care so much about centrifuges.” But, of course, Iran hasn’t showed that. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
What do the photos show?
There was nothing going on outside, and suddenly there’s a stream of water coming from a corner. Water can be used to wash out things—there’s a container in that building that’s used in high-explosives testing. You just don’t know. What we know for sure is that the [International Atomic Energy Agency] wants to visit this place based on evidence that Iran worked on nuclear weapons, high-explosives components, or possibly a neutron initiator there. The main thing is testing nuclear weapons components.
Any activity at the building is gonna make the IAEA nervous, justifiably, because [the Iranians] could be trying to hide evidence of past testing.
Where did you get the photographs?
We buy them from DigitalGlobe.
So the IAEA would have already had these photos and known about them in April, before the talks?
The IAEA knew it. They knew about it before the talks last month. Plus the intelligence agencies have it so they may have shared it.
So what happens next?
It looks like Iran isn’t going to let the IAEA visit, and if it does, the IAEA won’t be able to tell. If they find something then of course they’ll find something, but usually if the place is cleaned up—and Iran knows how to do it, they’ve been caught enough in the past—if they find nothing, you don’t know if there was nothing that really happened. It looks like we won’t get really far on Parchin. Even if they let them go in, we may not get a conclusive result.
Is Parchin especially important?
We don’t think it’s that vital, and it’s gotten a little bit overplayed. Other parts of this need to be focused on, because finally we’re looking for Iran to cooperate. Parchin is like a third rail for them: they freak out when you talk about it; the military may have made decisions about what people can come visit, and it may have nothing to do with nuclear. But there’s a lot of other things that involve suspected nuclear or weaponization work, and what you need is, ‘We’ll answer your question,’ and some of this could be settled in Vienna next week [where IAEA meetings are scheduled].
So it sounds like this is more about symbols of cooperation rather than the facility itself.
It needs to be clear to the Iranians that they need to send a signal soon that they’re willing to be more transparent with the IAEA on questions involving military nuclear programs. We’re worried about a parallel military program—the whole military dimension is important. Parchin may not be the best way to do that anymore.
A main argument used by opponents of striking Iran at the present time is that we have inspectors and satellite photos and the rest, so if Iran’s rulers make the decision to build a nuclear bomb, we will know about it. Does this confirm that argument, since we caught them cleansing their facility? Or does this rebut that argument, because they are clearly up to mischief even with inspectors in the country?
Well, they still have to make enough highly enriched uranium, and right now we’d know if they had. Two years from now, that may not be the case, but this year and well into 2013, we believe we would know.
The covert production right now is less of a worry. Everyone’s watching nervously what’s happening at Fordow, how fast are they increasing the number of centrifuges—and they are, not as fast as they’d like us to believe—and that’s a priority, not to get them to install more and make 20 percent enriched.
But the talks in Vienna Monday and Tuesday are over weaponization. And that’s really the core issue: does Iran intend to build nuclear weapons, not if they’re going to operate centrifuges. If Iran showed in a verifiable way that it wasn’t going to build nuclear weapons, people wouldn’t care so much about centrifuges.
But they do care about centrifuges.
Because there’s evidence they want to build nuclear weapons; they worked on it a lot in the past.
So what’s at stake in Vienna, especially with the next round of P5+1 negotiations in Baghdad coming up?
Iran won’t take the first step, so if this meeting in Vienna ends badly, it’s a bad time for the Baghdad meeting.
The priority is we need to see some breakthrough on their part.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.