x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rendering of chamber casts doubts on Iran's nuclear work

A drawing based on information from inside Iran's Parchin facility shows an explosives containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests that UN inspectors suspect Tehran has conducted there.

The rendering inside Iran’s Parchin site shows a chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms related tests.
The rendering inside Iran’s Parchin site shows a chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms related tests.

VIENNA // A drawing based on information from inside an Iranian military site shows an explosives containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests that UN inspectors suspect Tehran has conducted there.

Iran denies such testing and has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a chamber.

The computer-generated drawing issued by an official of a country tracking Iran’s nuclear programme said it proves the structure exists, despite Tehran’s refusal to acknowledge it.

The image is based on information from a person who had seen the chamber at the Parchin military site, the official said, adding that going into detail would endanger the life of the informant. The official comes from an IAEA member country that is critical of Iran’s assertions that its nuclear activities are peaceful.

A former IAEA official said he believes the drawing is accurate. Olli Heinonen, until last year the UN nuclear agency’s deputy director general in charge of the Iran file, said it was “very similar” to a photo he recently saw that he believes to be the pressure chamber the IAEA suspects is at Parchin.

He said even the colours of the computer-generated drawing matched that of the photo he had but declined to go into the origins of the photo to protect his source.

After months of being rebuffed, IAEA officials met with Iranian officials yesterday in Vienna, and the IAEA will renew its attempt to gain access to the chamber, allegedly hidden in a building.

Any evidence that Iran is hiding such an explosives containment tank, and details on how it functions, is significant for IAEA investigations.

Beyond IAEA hopes of progress, the meetings in Vienna yesterday and today are being closely watched by six powers trying to persuade Iran to make nuclear concessions as a mood-setter for talks that start Monday between the six and Tehran in Baghdad.

Warnings by Israel that it may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities eased after Iran and the six – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – met last month and agreed there was enough common will for the Baghdad round.

In Tehran on Sunday, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said it was up to the Western nations coming to the Baghdad talks to “build trust of the Iranian nation,” adding, “Any kind of miscalculation by the West will block success of the talks.”

The IAEA has been stonewalled by Iran for more than four years in attempts to probe what it says is intelligence from member states strongly suggesting that Iran secretly worked on developing nuclear weapons.

It first mentioned the suspected existence of the chamber in a November report that described “a large explosives containment vessel” for experiments on triggering a nuclear explosion, adding that it had satellite images “consistent with this information.”

It did not detail what the images showed. But a diplomat familiar with the IAEA’s investigation who has also seen the image provided to the AP said they revealed a cylinder similar to the image at Parchin. Subsequent photos showed a roof and walls going up around the cylinder that then hid the chamber from satellite surveillance.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in March that his agency has “credible information that indicates that Iran engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices” at the site. Diplomats subsequently told the AP that the experiments also appear to have involved a small prototype neutron device used to spark a nuclear explosion – equipment that would be tested only if a country was trying to develop atomic weapons.

Iran has strenuously denied conducting such work – and any intentions to build nuclear weapons – but has been less clear on whether the structure where it allegedly took place exists.

Attempts to get Iranian comment about the drawing were unsuccessful. A copy of the diagram was attached to an email sent to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, with a note that the AP would be asking for reaction. Subsequent phone calls over the weekend went to his voicemail.

The technology used for the suspected multipoint explosives trigger experiments is similar to that employed in manufacturing tiny industrialised diamonds, and the IAEA believes former Soviet scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko – an expert in such diamond-making – helped Iran with designing the chamber.

Diplomats say Mr Danilenko has told the agency that he did not work on such a chamber, but his son-in-law, identified by the diplomats as Vladimir Padalko, told the IAEA that the container was built under Mr Danilenko’s direct supervision. Repeated attempts by the AP and other media organisations to contact the two men have been unsuccessful since the IAEA revealed Mr Danilenko’s suspected involvement in November.

“What one does inside such a chamber is conduct high explosives testing,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “You are going to make something go boom with maybe 70 kilograms of high explosives, you need to contain the explosion.

“And particularly if you are using uranium, which is reportedly the case, you want to contain all the uranium dust so there’s not any telltale, observable signals of that experimentation.”