Just days after Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said he had “credible” information that Iran was conducting nuclear implosion tests at a military compound, an Iranian news service reported Monday that an explosion at the compound killed two workers.
The Iranian disclosure came only hours before inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were due to arrive in Tehran to discuss key deadlines Iran missed in May regarding disclosures about its nuclear development program, according to Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
She said on a conference call Monday arranged by the advocacy organization the Israel Project that she believes the report of an explosion at the Parchin military compound is accurate because it came from the semi-official Iranian Student News Agency.
The agency said the fire was ignited in an “explosive materials production unit.” The explosion was reportedly so intense that it blew out windows nearly nine miles away, according to the opposition website Saham News. No one claimed immediate responsibility for the explosion, which some speculate may have been caused by a technical problem.
“The facility is still active,” Pletka said. “The Iranians have been cleaning it up for some time.”
Inspectors from the IAEA have been denied access to Parchin since 2005, despite repeated requests. Iran insists it is not a nuclear site and thus not required to be open for inspection. And it maintains that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes and not to build nuclear weapons.
But Western experts suspect the Parchin plant produces nuclear warheads. Inspectors have observed via satellite what they deem suspicious construction activity at the site, possibly related to an Iranian attempt to cover up evidence of secret nuclear tests there.
Steinitz’s comments came against a backdrop of the November 2011 IAEA report that said the nuclear watchdog agency had information that Iran was working to “manufacture small capsules suitable as containers of a component containing nuclear material” and that it may have “experimented with such components in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons.” Neutron initiators are said to be a key component in an implosion type of nuclear bomb and have no “civilian” or non-weapons purpose.
Also on Monday, a senior Russian diplomat warned that time was running out for Iran and the world’s six major world powers to reach a final agreement by the Nov. 24 deadline on Iran’s nuclear energy program. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said “non-stop talks are needed.”
No date has been set for the six world powers — the U.S., Russia, Germany, France, Britain and China — to resume talks with Iran, but Ryabkov said he hoped a date would be set within the next two weeks after an expected meeting between Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The talks began last November and were extended to next month when the sides failed to reach an accord after six months. The sides are said to remain divided on several key issues.
Pletka said that although the work of the IAEA is on a “separate but supposedly parallel track” as the talks by the six world powers (known as P5+1), the IAEA is zeroing in on Parchin but the world powers are not.
“They are not interested in talking about matters the IAEA is interested in talking about and believe the IAEA can do it alone,” she said, noting that this is particularly true of the United Sates.
“There has been substantial concern by other nations about that,” Pletka observed. “Without setting out redlines to make clear that unless the questions of the IAEA are answered, sanctions will not be lifted. But the Iranians believe they can have an agreement without the demands of the IAEA being met — and that is staggering.
“The Iranians believe they can stonewall the IAEA,” because so far, they’ve been stonewalling them without consequences to their talks with the West,” she said.
“So why not continue?” she continued. “They believe pressure is on the others and not on them. They believe they might have to make some small concessions, but they are not showing the appropriate spirit to bridge the trust gap.”
In fact, Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, said Monday that Iran would not agree to any restrictions on its nuclear energy program and that steps the U.S. and Europe have taken to date to stop its nuclear program have only resulted in more “progress in the country’s nuclear technology.”
“Depriving Iran of [its] nuclear energy program cannot be a solution to the issue because Iran has achieved the nuclear know-how and technology,” he said, adding that the world powers should simply accept the realities of the Iranian nuclear energy program.
Pletka said Iran must “theoretically give something up to the IAEA, and in the view of the French government it absolutely must. The problem is, if we get to the second week of November and it has not given up anything, will the P5+1 be willing to implement new sanctions?”
Although members of Congress have said additional sanctions would be needed if an agreement is not achieved, Pletka said the “Iranians do not believe what they hear only what they see — and there is a possibility that sanctions will be loosened without answering the IAEA’s questions.”
“And why not?” he added. “It has happened twice already.”
Some 353 members of Congress made the same observation and sent a bi-partisan letter to Secretary of State John Kerry Oct. 1 questioning Iran’s actions.
“The only reasonable conclusion for its stonewalling of international investigators,” the letter said, “is that Tehran does indeed have much to hide.”