Intelligence brief: Recent nuclear-related developments at the Parchin military complex, Iran

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Open Briefing, 12 Dec 2012

  1. Iran has refused to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to visit the site of the suspected explosives chamber at the Parchin military complex (PMC) pending agreement over the modalities of cooperation.
  2. Other circumstantial indicators, acquired technical expertise and behavioural precedents appear to reinforce suspicions concerning nuclear-related activities at PMC.
  3. Recent satellite imagery suggests extensive sanitisation and landscaping efforts around the chamber site.
  4. Taking these factors into account and based on public-domain sources, Open Briefing concludes it ishighly likely that any nuclear-related activities at PMC have been suspended.
  5. In the interests of regional peace and stability, it is incumbent on Iran to provide conclusive clarifications if it is to establish that nuclear-related weaponisation did not take place at PMC in accordance with its claims.

Background

Located 30 km southeast of Tehran, PMC is a key locus for the research, development and production of military materiel, including conventional munitions and explosives. However, analysts believe that the compound’s isolated northeast also houses a containment chamber (at 35° 33′ 33.22″, 51° 47′ 6.12″) specially designed for high explosive and hydrodynamic tests consistent with a nuclear weapons programme.

According to Western intelligence agencies, the chamber was installed sometime in early 2000 and measures approximately 18.8 m by 4.6 m. Nuclear-related activity allegedly also took place in another building located some 140 m to its north.

A November 2011 report by the IAEA stated that:

A building was constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object at a location at the Parchin military complex. A large earth berm was subsequently constructed between the building containing the cylinder and a neighbouring building, indicating the probable use of high explosives in the chamber. The [IAEA] has obtained commercial satellite images that are consistent with this information.

PMC appears to be run by the Defence Industries Organisation, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics which also plays a key role in Iran’s centrifuge programme. Accordingly, nuclear-related explosive tests conducted within the compound, if verified, could further challenge Iran’s assertions concerning the purely civilian nature of its nuclear programme.

Consider that Iran is also currently enriching uranium to near military-grade levels, in quantities reportedly inconsistent with the number of nuclear power plants currently in operation, and is on track to eventually extract fissile plutonium by reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods at the 40 Megawatt Heavy Water Reactor near Arak (IR-40). Furthermore, Iran has been openly developing delivery systems such as the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile and its variants, usually associated with non-conventional or nuclear warfare.

Weaponisation, including experiments relating to high-explosive initiation systems and the machining of weapons-grade uranium in metal form to fit a missile warhead, is the third component required to turn both fissile material and delivery system into a deployable nuclear weapon. Iran is believed to have conducted nuclear-related weaponisation tests until around 2003, when this was temporarily suspended along with uranium enrichment, though this may have resumed sometime after 2007.

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