Yesterday, I described what was known at the time about a mysterious blast near the Parchin military site in Iran. I postulated that satellite imagery would soon be available to help sort out the mystery of what took place. A tweet this afternoon from @dravazed alerted me to this article at the Times of Israel, which, in turn, linked to this story posted at israeldefense.com.
Satellite imagery described as from Sunday night’s blast at the Israel Defense site shows several buildings destroyed. The article claims that the blast looks like an attack on a bunker:
Satellite images obtained by Israel Defense and analyzed by specialist Ronen Solomon clearly show damage consistent with an attack against bunkers in a central locality within the military research complex at the Parchin military compound.
Because of the unique shape of the large building adjacent to those destroyed by the blast, I was able to find the location of the blast on Google Maps. Also, with the help of this article from 2012 in The Atlantic, I was able to locate both the area inspected by IAEA in 2005 and the site of the disputed blast chamber where it is alleged that research to develop a high explosive fuse for a nuclear weapon has been carried out. None of these three locations, the blast site, the chamber site or the area inspected in 2005, lies within the boundaries marked as Parchin on Google Maps. The blast site looks to be near a populated area of what is marked on Google Maps as Mojtame-e Maskuni-ye Parchin (which appears to translate as Parchin Residential Complex A if I used Google Translate appropriately). In fact, the blast site appears to be just over a mile from an athletic field. On the map below, #1 is the disputed blast chamber location, #2 is the blast site and #3 is the area inspected in 2005. Note that both the blast chamber site and the area inspected in 2005 are more removed from what appear to be the populated areas.
I am far from an image analysis expert, but the blast site looks to me to be more like an industrial site than a cache for storing explosives. If a bunker were indeed located here, that would put the local planning in this area on a par with West, Texas.
It will be very interesting to see how US officials describe the damage and the site where it occurred.
Detailed information is not yet available, but by all accounts there was a very large explosion east of Tehran Sunday night, around 11:15 local time. Many believe that the explosion took place at Parchin, the military site that has been at the center of controversy raised by those who accuse Iran of carrying out work there to develop an explosive trigger for a nuclear bomb. Some of the most detailed information comes from Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times:
A mysterious explosion at or near an important military complex rocked the Iranian capital on Sunday, lighting up the skies over the city.
Iranian official sources denied the explosion had taken place at the complex, the expansive Parchin military site east of the city, where international monitors suspect Iran once tested triggers for potential nuclear weapons. But the enormous orange flash that illuminated Tehran around 11:15 p.m. local time clearly came from that direction, several witnesses said.
Officials at Iran’s Defense Industries Organization, though also denying that the explosion took place at Parchin, confirmed that two people were missing after “an ordinary fire” caused by “chemical reactions of flammable material” at an unspecified production unit, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency. There was no word on the location of the fire.
Witnesses in the east of Tehran said that windows had been shattered in the vicinity of the military complex and that all trees in a hundred-yard radius of two villages, Changi and Hammamak, had been burned. The villages are on the outskirts of the military site.
The map below shows the area in question:
As seen on the map, Changi is very close to Parchin, but Hammamak is on the other side of Parchin and the two villages are over three miles from one another. A blast fireball that scorched trees over three miles apart must have been quite spectacular.
Many factors go into calculating the strength of blasts, including the type of explosive and what type of containment might have been present. However, FEMA provides (pdf) this rough guideline (via DTRA) of the radius over which various types of damage might be expected to occur as a function of the amount of explosive material used:
Because it relates to assessing damage from terrorist bombs, the FEMA figure breaks the amounts of explosives down into the amounts that can be carried by cars, vans and large trucks. The Times story doesn’t report on how far away from the complex windows were shattered, but the effect of burned trees in villages over three miles from one another suggests that such damage would reach quite a ways. At the very least, it would appear that the blast had the equivalent of more than 10,000 pounds of TNT, and perhaps significantly more than that.
Despite the best efforts of those who want a military attack on Iran to paint Iran as hiding attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, cooler heads appear to be prevailing as yesterday’s talks in Tehran produced reports of a likely agreement and a follow-up meeting between the IAEA and Iran in only a month. One of the most important signs of progress is that the AP’s George Jahn, who has served as a conduit for many of the most flimsy charges against Iran even gave space at the end of his report today to provide an alternate viewpoint that calls most of his reporting for the past year into significant question.
From Reuters, Fred Dahl (who at times has dabbled in the same rumor-mongering as Jahn, but not as blatantly) reports on the progress made yesterday:
The U.N. atomic agency failed to gain access to a military site in talks with Iran this week but expects to reach a deal in January to resume a stalled nuclear probe, the chief U.N. inspector said after returning from Tehran on Friday.
Even though the International Atomic Energy Agency was not allowed to see the Parchin complex during Thursday’s visit to the Iranian capital, IAEA team leader Herman Nackaerts said progress had been made in the meeting.
“We expect to finalize the structured approach and start implementing it then shortly after that,” he said, referring to a framework agreement that would enable the IAEA to restart its investigation into suspected atomic bomb research in Iran.
“We had good meetings,” Nackaerts added. “We were able to make progress.”
It is not just the IAEA who characterized the meeting as productive. From PressTV, we also get positive news from the Iranian side of the meeting:
Earlier, Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Ali-Asghar Soltanieh told Press TV that Tehran and the UN nuclear body agreed at the end of the one-day meeting to hold a next round of talks in January.
“This round of talks was constructive and good progress was made,” Soltanieh added.
Adding to the possible momentum generated yesterday, both the Reuters article linked above and this Fars News piece from Iran report that a new round of the P5+1 talks also could be taking place soon.
But perhaps the most encouraging news of all comes from what appears in today’s report from the AP’s George Jahn, who has been at the center of controversy many times during the last year because of the way he publishes “leaked” material coming from countries that favor military action in Iran and who want to disrupt diplomatic negotiations. In today’s story, he does recite some of his litany of charges against Iran and the claims that work at the Parchin military site may have been carried out to develop an explosive trigger device for a nuclear weapon. He also relates that David Albright emailed to AP a “series of commercial satellite photographs of the Parchin site” detailing activities at the site that Albright and Jahn have been hyping as aimed at “cleansing” the site of radioactive signatures of the trigger development work. Presumably, Albright had to email the photos to Jahn because Jahn is not able to find them on Albright’s website where he posted them along with a “they’re still at it” type of “analysis” earlier this week.
However, after giving space for more information from Albright, Jahn makes the remarkable move of providing an alternate viewpoint from an authoritative source [emphais added]:
But a former IAEA inspector questioned what the information shown on the satellite photos actually mean.
“This ‘sanitization story’ is an old wives’ tale,” said Robert Kelley, in an email Friday to the AP. “It is clear from examination of the satellite images that there is no concerted effort to disguise possible uranium contamination outside the building.”
Kelley said the activities at Parchin reflected “a construction project, not a demolition effort,” adding: “This is clearly not a sanitization.“
Seeing his last year of work on behalf of war mongers dismissed as “an old wives’ tale” and then including it in his report had to hurt Jahn. He is due a bit of respect for reporting it, even if he did hide it at the very end of his report.
It seemed that David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security had reached a new low when on August 24 they wowed the world with their analytical powers by explaining to us the meaning of Iran draping buildings at the disputed Parchin military site with pink tarpaulins. Yesterday, Albright and associates did their best to keep the Pink Panic at Parchin going, as they breathlessly revealed that Iran is now actually REMOVING THE TARPS!
As I have maintained all along, if Iran has carried out work at this site to develop a neutron trigger based on high explosives, as they have been accused, then the steel chamber in which the work was carried out is quite likely to have been rendered radioactive through the process of neutron activation and no amount of cleaning the chamber or the surrounding building or surrounding soil can hide that. That means that the tarps themselves (along with the earlier soil-moving exercises) have been a feint to give Albright and the press something to chase while those who favor an attack on Iran continue to agitate for “action”. We see from the most recent photos that the building in which the explosives chamber is believed to be housed still stands after the tarp has been removed from its roof. Should inspectors gain access to the site, their primary objective remains unchanged from pre-tarp days. They first need to determine if the chamber is still inside the building. If the chamber is still present, they need to examine it for evidence of neutron activation or any other radioactive contamination arising from the research the Iranians have been accused of carrying out.
Both Bloomberg and the AP’s George Jahn reported yesterday that the second session of talks in Vienna between the IAEA and Iran produced progress and that additional talks are now scheduled for May 21 in Vienna. But don’t look for news of this progress in the New York Times, because it’s not there. And don’t look for statements from the US praising the progress (although China did praise it) and urging further progress at Monday’s talks in Vienna or the P5+1 talks later in the week in Baghdad. Instead, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro chose to emphasize in an interview on Army Radio in Israel that US plans for war with Iran are ready to be put into action.
First, the good news on the progress. From Bloomberg:
Iran and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors extended a round of negotiations over the Persian Gulf nation’s suspected nuclear-weapon work after both sides said progress had been made.
IAEA inspectors will meet again with their Iranian counterparts on May 21 in Vienna. They ended today two days of talks in the Austrian capital.
“We discussed a number of options to take the agency verification process forward,” IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts told reporters. “We had a good exchange of views.”
“We had fruitful discussions in a very conducive environment,” Iran’s IAEA Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said. “We have had progress.”
More details on the progress are reported by Mehr News:
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed to develop a modality for further cooperation, the Mehr News Agency has learnt.
The responsibilities and commitments of each side will be determined by the modality and the measures necessary will be taken based on the agreement.
In his report on the progress of negotiations, George Jahn couldn’t resist a partial reprise of his report over the weekend in which he breathlessly released a cartoon purporting to depict an explosives chamber where nebulous “Western diplomats” have leaked to Jahn that work to develop an explosive neutron trigger for an atomic bomb has been carried out. In an interesting development, Jahn has put a new accusation into this scenario. On Tuesday, I pointed out that if the accused work has been carried out in the chamber, then the steel walls of the chamber will be radioactive due to neutron activation and that this radioactivity will be dispersed throughout the entire thickness of the steel. That means the chamber cannot have its radioactivity removed by the cleaning process claimed by David Albright:
The process could involve grinding down the surfaces inside the building, collecting the dust and then washing the area thoroughly. This could be followed with new building materials and paint. It could also involve removing any dirt around the building thought to contain contaminants.
Jahn now allows for the possibility that Iran could not leave a chamber that is radioactive due to neutron activation in the building for an IAEA inspection:
Some fear that Iran may even dismantle the explosives containment chamber believed to be inside the suspect building, taking it out in small pieces, if given enough time.
Why has Jahn’s language evolved from “scrubbing” the chamber to removing it? Continue reading
In March, Gareth Porter and I debunked claims that “diplomats” had fed to AP’s George Jahn. The diplomats asserted to Jahn that they had seen satellite photos depicting activity interpreted as attempts to clean the site at Parchin where they believe Iran has carried out work aimed at developing an explosive trigger device for a nuclear weapon.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the depiction of these activities as being aimed at cleaning the site is that, as I pointed out in the post linked above, it is virtually impossible to remove all traces of radioactive materials from a site where they have been used. The Iranians were very quick to point this out as well. No amount of cleaning will remove all of the residual radioactivity from the building or surrounding soil. I also pointed out in my post that no satellite photos purporting to show this cleaning activity had yet been made public.
Yesterday, David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security dutifully stepped up to deliver what was intended as photographic proof. From Albright’s description:
The new activity seen in the satellite image occurred outside a building suspected to contain an explosive chamber used to carry out nuclear weapons related experiments (see figure 1). The April 9, 2012 satellite image shows items lined up outside the building. It is not clear what these items are. The image also shows what appears to be a stream of water that emanates from or near the building. Based on new information that the IAEA received, the Agency asked Iran to visit this building at the Parchin site, but Iran has not allowed a visit. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano noted recently that the IAEA has “information that some activity is ongoing” at the Parchin site 1. When asked if he was concerned that these activities could be associated with cleansing the site, Amano replied, “That possibility is not excluded…We cannot say for sure because we are not there.” The items visible outside the building could be associated with the removal of equipment from the building or with cleansing it. The stream of water that appears to emanate from the building raises concerns that Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building.
The idea that Iran would want to wash the building or its contents, presumably in order to remove radioactive contamination from trigger-building experiments, and then just allow the wash water to run onto the ground surrounding the building is laughable on its face. As I noted in my March post, the Iranians pointed out that radioactive contamination can’t be eliminated from a site where such work has been carried out. Of course they would know that merely rinsing some of the radioactive material into the ground surrounding the building would do nothing to hide it from the sensitive detection equipment IAEA would bring to an inspection.
There are two potential explanations for the water seen in the photo labeled April 9, 2012. Continue reading
President Obama and his administration have spent the last week trying to point out the extreme downside to an attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear sites. Unfortunately, Obama’s words of caution are getting little play while Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made appearances before the war-hungry mob at AIPAC to make the case for an attack now. In the meantime, Iran took positive diplomatic steps that are likely to be overlooked, reversing a death-sentence conviction on an accused US spy and committing to an IAEA visit to the disputed Parchin site.
As seen in the video above, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano made public statements associated with his appearance before the Board of Governors. From his prepared remarks:
As my report on Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran makes clear, the Agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.
In January and February, a senior Agency team held two rounds of talks in Tehran with Iranian officials aimed at resolving all outstanding issues in connection with Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite intensive discussions, there was no agreement on a structured approach to resolving these issues. Iran did not grant access to the Parchin site during the visits, as requested by the Agency. Iran provided an initial declaration on the issues listed in the Annex to my November 2011 report, although it did not address the Agency’s concerns in a substantive manner. During the visits, the Agency also submitted questions on Parchin and the possible role of a foreign expert.
Iran’s Ambassador to the UN agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh dismissed Amano’s report as “only a summary of his earlier report“. Today, Soltanieh announced that Iran remains prepared to define the conditions under which IAEA will be allowed access to Parchin: Continue reading
In a long interview with RT, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, explained yet again that Iran’s position is that the team from the IAEA that visited Iran earlier this month was not the appropriate set of inspectors to visit the Parchin site. The IAEA has accused Iran of using this facility to develop technology for explosive triggers that could be used in a nuclear weapon. Iran was working under the impression that this group was meant for negotiations aimed setting ground rules for upcoming inspections.
Working along those lines, Soltaniyeh told RT that Iran has not ruled out a future IAEA visit to Parchin:
The IAEA delegation that visited Tehran recently was comprised of experts on legal, political and technical issues and not inspectors, Soltaniyeh said in an interview with Russian RT television.
The group visited Iran for negotiations on reality and framework of mutual cooperation, he said.
Iran does not rule out the access of IAEA to its military sites such as Parchin but this depends on some preconditions which IAEA should meet, Soltaniyeh said.
Weakening his own argument somewhat, Soltaniyeh went on to tell RT that Iran had offered to allow the IAEA team to inspect a different site at which the IAEA had accused Iran of carrying out high explosives work:
“I just want to tell you that last week, perhaps this is the first time I am telling you, we, in fact, offered the agency to go to another site which the director general in his report has referred to as a large scale high-explosive test. We offered, but the team was instructed by the director general to go back to Vienna. Therefore we don’t have any hesitation that every activity we have has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.”
In the video, Soltaniyeh also points out that IAEA inspectors did visit Parchin twice in 2005, as we were reminded earlier by Moon of Alabama.
In a somewhat related, but entirely unexpected move, Joby Warrick has moved off his role of transcribing only information that paints Iran in a bad light to provide information that removes one of the primary justifications Israel has been advancing as the basis for a unilateral attack on Iran. Earlier this month, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak introduced the concept of a “zone of immunity” that Iran could enter wherein their final progress toward a nuclear weapon could not be disrupted: Continue reading
Because there hasn’t been an immediate, multinational hue and cry to bomb Iran over the leaked IAEA report, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and David Albright, the designated point person for fomenting fears over Iran’s nuclear program in the United States, have been reduced to using their best Billy Mays voice to boom out “But wait, there’s more!” Netanyahu’s blathering has been dutifully written down and published by Reuters while Albright has found a willing mouthpiece in the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick
Netanyahu told his cabinet yesterday that Iran is closer to getting the bomb than the IAEA report suggests. Here is how Reuters reported his remarks:
“Iran is closer to getting an (atomic) bomb than is thought,” Netanyahu said in remarks to cabinet ministers, quoted by an official from his office.
“Only things that could be proven were written (in the U.N. report), but in reality there are many other things that we see,” Netanyahu said, according to the official.
The Israeli leader did not specify what additional information he had about Iran’s nuclear program during his cabinet’s discussion on the report by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released last week.
Yup, Netanyahu is telling us he knows more about Iran’s nuclear technology than the rest of the world knows, but he won’t give us details and he can’t prove it. And, of course, it is important to believe everything Netanyahu says.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Joby Warrick saw fit this morning to devote an entire article to building the case that Vyacheslav Danilenko was transferring crucial nuclear technology to Iran rather than helping Iran to develop nanodiamond technology. The accusations against Danilenko come almost exclusively from David Albright and a “report” on Danilenko prepared by Albright’s Insitute for Science and International Security. Warrick does include one brief quotation from a former CIA Iran analyst on how analysts characterize the flow of information into potentially covert programs and a statement from Josh Pollack of Arms Control Wonk. I will return to the Pollack quote below.
Now that Danilenko’s work on controlled high explosives detonations creating nanodiamonds has been put forward as a potentially peaceful use of the technology he was helping to develop in Iran, those who promote the view that Iran is working hard now to develop a nuclear weapon find it necessary to provide a stronger connection between Danilenko’s work and development of a bomb trigger device. At the same time, Danilenko has responded to press inquiries with a direct “I am not a father of Iran’s nuclear program” and “I am not a nuclear physicist.” Continue reading
Yesterday, I pointed out that the IAEA is preparing to release a report on potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran almost exactly two years after the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei as its leader. As discussed in that post, one of the key pieces of evidence that is anticipated to be discussed in the report is a large steel container in which explosions are carried out. The claim will be that this chamber is being used to test the use of conventional explosives as a trigger device for a nuclear weapon.
Even before the official report comes out, there are now serious questions about the credibility of the claims on the steel tank. In a post yesterday at Moon of Alabama, b informs us that there is a likely very different use of the conventional explosive technology and the steel chamber where the explosions are carried out. A key to unraveling this mystery was an examination of the area of expertise for the Russian scientist cited as the source of the explosive technology in the Washington Post’s “scoop” of the expected content of the IAEA report. From the Moon of Alabama post:
Dr. Vyacheslav Danilenko is a well known Ukrainian (“former Soviet”) scientist. But his specialties are not “weapon” or “nuclear” science, indeed there seems to be nothing to support that claim, but the production of nanodiamonds via detonations (ppt). According to the history of detonation nanodiamonds he describes in chapter 10 of Ultrananocrystalline Diamond – Synthesis, Properties, and Applications (pdf) he has worked in that field since 1962, invented new methods used in the process and is related with Alit, an Ukrainian company that produces nanodiamonds.
Some years ago Iran launched a big Nano Technology Initiative which includes Iranian research on detonation nanodiamonds (pdf). Iran is officially planing to produce them on industrial scale. It holds regular international conferences and invites experts on nanotechnology from all over the world. It is quite likely that famous international scientists in that field, like Dr. Danilenko, have been invited, gave talks in Iran and cooperate with its scientists.
Producing nanodiamonds via detonations uses large confined containers with water cooling, for which Danilenko seems to have a patent. The Ukrainian company he works with, Alit, shows such a detonation chamber on its webpage as does the picture above from the French-German nano-research company ISL. The detonation nanodiamond explanation thereby also fits with another allegation from the IAEA report:
So it turns out that the most likely use of the “bus-sized steel container” is the production of nanodiamonds. As b points out in an update, that explanation now has reached the Guardian (though without citing Moon of Alabama, I would note): Continue reading