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The Parchin “Stand-Off”

by GARETH PORTER

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano has signaled that there will be no IAEA agreement with Iran in the meetings in Vienna Monday and Tuesday on the terms for Iranian cooperation in clarifying issue of alleged nuclear weapons work.

Amano indicated in an interview with The Daily Beast Friday that he intends to hold up an agreement on Iranian cooperation in responding to allegations of military involvement in its nuclear programme until the IAEA is allowed to visit to Parchin.

Amano told journalist Michael Adler the “standoff” over access to Parchin “has become like a symbol” and vowed to “pursue this objective until there’s a concrete result”.

Adler cited an “informed source” as saying that the IAEA rejects any linkage between a visit to Parchin and the rest of the plan for cooperation being negotiated, and insists that a visit to Parchin must come first before any agreement.

But the actual draft negotiating text of the agreement on “Clarification of Unresolved Issues” with Iran’s proposed changes from the original IAEA proposal, which has been posted on the website of the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, shows that the major conflict over their cooperation is whether the process has a definite endpoint, not access to Parchin.

Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has said that Iran is willing to grant access to Parchin but only under an agreed plan for Iranian cooperation with the IAEA.

Amano and Western officials have justified the insistence on immediate access to the Parchin site to investigate an alleged explosive containment vessel for testing related to a nuclear weapon by suggesting that satellite photographs show Iran may be trying to “clean up” the site.

Amano hinted at that accusation in the interview with Adler without making it explicitly. “We have information and there are some moves – there’s something moving out there,” he said. “Going there soon is better.”

But it is well known that no amount of washing would eliminate traces of radioactivity, which would be easily detected by any IAEA inspection.

On Mar. 8, in response to a presentation by Soltanieh to the IAEA Board of Governors detailing the negotiations, Amano confirmed, in effect, that agency was insisting on being able to extend the process by coming up with more questions, regardless of Iran’s responses to the IAEA’s questions on the agreed list of topics. He complained that Iran had sought to force the agency to “present a definitive list of questions” and to deny the agency “the right to revisit issues….”

Amano’s demands for immediate access to Parchin and for a process without any clear endpoint appear to be aimed at allowing the United States and its allies to continue accusing Iran of refusing cooperation with the IAEA during negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group scheduled to resume in Baghdad May 23.

Amano was elected to replace the more independent Mohamed ElBaradei in 2009 with U.S. assistance and pledged to align the agency with U.S. policy on Iran as well as other issues, as revealed by a WikiLeaks cables dated July and October 2009.

The draft text as of Feb. 21 shows Iran seeking a final resolution of the issues within a matter of weeks but the IAEA insisting on an open-ended process with no promise of such an early resolution.

The unfinished negotiating draft explains why Iran is holding on to Parchin access as a bargaining chip to get an agreement which will give Iran some tangible political benefit in return for information responding to a series of IAEA allegations.

The still unfinished draft represents the original draft from the IAEA, as modified by Iran during the last round of talks, according to Soltanieh in an interview with IPS on Mar. 15.

The negotiating draft shows that Iran and the IAEA had proposed and Iran agreed that the very first issues on which Iran would respond were “Parchin” and the “foreign expert”. Those were references to the allegation published in the November 2011 IAEA report of a bomb test chamber there, as well as the allegation that a Ukrainian scientist had assisted in the building of the chamber.

A second topic included “detonator development”, “high explosive initiation” and “hydrodynamic experiments”. All three of those subtopics have been discussed as connected to the alleged test chamber at Parchin, and the draft shows that Iran proposed all five subtopics be considered together as a single topic with Parchin.

The issue of whether or not the plan would provide for a clear-cut closure if Iran provided satisfactory answers comes up repeatedly in the draft. In the third paragraph, the IAEA draft refers to “a number of actions that are to be undertaken before the June 2012 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, if possible”.

But the draft appears to anticipate a process without any specific terminal point. “Follow up actions that are required of Iran,” it says, “to facilitate the Agency’s conclusions regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme will be identified as this process continues.”

The draft text shows that Iran amended that paragraph so that the process would be completed by the June 2012 IAEA board meeting. The entire sentence providing for identification of further actions required of Iran during the process is struck out in the text.

Iran agrees in the draft agreement to “facilitate a conclusive technical assessment of all issues of concern to the Agency.” But Iran inserted the sentence, “There exist no issues other than those reflected in the said annex.”

The Iranian insistence on a commitment that the agency would not introduce additional issues parallels Iran’s approach to a similar agreement with the IAEA in August 2007. That agreement was aimed at clearing up a six issues on which the IAEA had expressed suspicions that Iran had secretly done work on a nuclear weapon.

In that case, the IAEA agreed that there would be no further issues introduced. But new issues were subsequently raised by the agency.

A crucial element of the plan presented by the IAEA is a provision under which the Agency “may adjust the order in which issues and topics are discussed, and return to those that have been discussed earlier, given that the issues and topics are interrelated.” In other words, there would be no promise of closure on an issue, regardless of what information Iran provides on the topic or topics.

The IAEA draft envisions a process that would begin with an Iranian “initial declaration”, after which the IAEA would “provide…initial questions and a detailed explain of its concerns” with regard to each successive topic and “where appropriate, documents related to the Agency’s concerns”.

But the draft shows an Iranian strikethrough on the word “initial”, rejecting the IAEA’s right to come up with more questions even after the initial questions were answered.

Iran and the IAEA had conflicting approaches to how the process would work. The IAEA draft provided that, after Iran had responded to questions and requests, and the IAEA had analysed the responses, “the Agency will discuss with Iran any further actions to be taken.”

In another demand for flexibility to continue the inquiry on a particular topic regardless of whether Iran had answered all questions initially posed by the agency, the IAEA draft provides that the agency “may adjust the order in which issues and topics are discussed and return to those that have been discussed earlier, given that issues and topics are interrelated.”

Iran deleted the language allowing the return to issues that had been discussed earlier.

The Iranian proposals for change indicate Tehran believes that the IAEA draft is intended to keep Iran under suspicion for an indefinite period as part of a larger negotiating strategy by the United States and its allies in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006. 

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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