30.6.15

Nuclear inspections in Iran

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We Ain’t Found Shit’

Scott Ritter explains why Iran shouldn’t accept ‘no notice’ inspections of its nuclear sites

By Scott Ritter at information clearing House
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Nuclear negotiations between Iran and what’s known as the P-5 + 1 group of nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) are scheduled to conclude on 30 June. A ‘framework agreement’ was set out in April, but still at issue is what kind of access inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will have. Iran has agreed to inspections of all the sites it has declared are being used to develop its nuclear power programme. The US insists that any agreement must also address what it calls ‘possible military dimensions’ – that is, allegations that Iran has pursued an undeclared nuclear weapons capability – and is demanding the right to conduct ‘no notice’ inspections of nuclear sites, and to interview Iranian nuclear scientists. ‘It’s critical for us to know going forward,’ the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said in June, that ‘those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.’ France has said that any agreement that doesn’t include inspections of military sites would be ‘useless’. Iran has been adamant that it won’t allow them and that its nuclear scientists are off-limits.
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The history of no notice inspections in Iraq does not bode well for their use in Iran. Such inspections are intelligence-based exercises. The bulk of the intelligence underpinning the US concerns over ‘possible military dimensions’ comes from the ‘alleged studies’ documents – a series of files the IAEA obtained in 2008 which appear to show that Iran had conducted some nuclear weapons development in 2002 and 2003. Their credibility has often been called into question and the Iranians declare they are fake. There’s good cause, too, to believe that much of the remaining intelligence buttressing the CIA’s case against Iran is flawed. The strange tale of the Iranian physicist Shahram Amiri, whose defection the CIA facilitated in the spring of 2009, serves as a case in point. Amiri was for several years before his defection an American agent-in-place whose reporting was used by the CIA in formulating its assessments on Iran. But his re-defection to Iran in 2010 suggests that he may have been a double agent, calling into question all his reporting to the CIA, before and after his defection.
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Operation Merlin, in which the CIA attempted to pass on to Iran flawed designs for a nuclear weapon, further undermines the CIA’s credibility as a source of information about an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
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If they were permitted, where would no notice inspections in Iran take place? There are two sites that the IAEA has publicly declared to be of interest. The first is Parchin, a military facility associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command. The IAEA was granted a ‘managed access’ inspection of the facility in 2005, and found nothing. In 2007, the IAEA claimed to have received new information linking Parchin to a test of a neutron initiator, the device which starts fission in a nuclear warhead, and asked to visit the site again. Iran has refused on the grounds that the basis for such an inspection is flawed. Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector, agreed: ‘The allegations that Iran carried out hydrodynamic experiments related to nuclear explosives in a large steel containment vessel [at Parchin] have questionable technical credibility.’ Parchin is a sensitive military facility, and Iran fears that giving inspectors access would lead to an intelligence-driven fishing expedition. The other site of interest is in Marivan, where the IAEA contends that Iran conducted large-scale explosive tests of a multi-point initiation system, which is used to initiate nuclear fission, and in doing so to activate the neutron initiator, in a weapon. The source of this allegation appears to be what Iran justifiably claims is a set of forged documents. In 2014, Iran offered to let the IAEA conduct another ‘managed access’ on-site inspection of Marivan; the IAEA declined.
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‘You can’t hang your hat on a single issue,’ Garry Dillon, the former head of the IAEA’s Action Team in Iraq, told me in October 1998. ‘By insisting on investigating every minor discrepancy, regardless of the bigger picture, you’re putting process ahead of substance. In the end, all you’ll be doing is chasing ghosts.’ He was right. In Iraq, the inspection process became a vehicle for creating confrontations that undermined international confidence in Baghdad’s willingness to abide by its disarmament obligation. When Iraq finally told the truth about its weapons programmes, no one believed it. We used to joke about how often we came back from an inspection empty-handed, repeating the saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
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The intelligence about the ‘possible military dimensions’ of Iran’s nuclear programme is of questionable provenance and most of it is more than a dozen years old. The consequences of failure to reach a nuclear accord with Iran today are too serious for the world to embrace a process that has been so controversial while having so little impact on legitimate disarmament. This is especially true when the inspected party, as is the case with Iran, has agreed to implement stringent verification measures and has a proven track record of abiding by them. Iran has been put in the impossible position of having to prove a negative. If it accepts inspections based on allegations it knows to be baseless, then it’s opening itself up to an endless cycle of foreign intrusion into its military and security infrastructure, and the inability of inspectors to discover something of relevance will only reinforce the belief that something is being hidden. We saw this happen before in Iraq, and the end result was a war based on flawed intelligence and baseless accusations that left many thousands dead and a region in turmoil.

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Scott Ritter is a former intelligence officer with the United States Marine Corps. From 1991-98, he served as a Chief Inspector for the UN in Iraq, where he led inspections to find weapons of mass destruction.