The White House claims that the ‘clock is ticking’ toward a possible showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. No one wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but U.S. intelligence agencies report that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons and does not pose an immediate nuclear threat. Instead of focusing on diplomacy however, international officials are wasting time wrangling over minor technical matters of questionable validity.
The latest ‘dispute’ is over claims that Iran conducted nuclear-related tests at its large Parchin military production complex near Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is demanding access to a small area at the military site. Evidence of a connection between Iran’s nuclear program and its military forces would be very worrisome and a matter of immediate concern, but that is not the issue here. The concerns about Parchin are based on undisclosed ‘information from a member state’ and are focused on a single building at one site rather than the larger nuclear program.
A recent analysis of the dispute from the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that “less has been going on … than meets the eye” and that the case for visiting the site “is not as clear-cut or compelling as some experts and officials portray it.” The SIPRI analysis received scant attention in the press and was ignored by policymakers, but it deserves to be weighed carefully.
Here are a few of its observations:
- The claims about an alleged explosive testing chamber in a building at the site is not based on physical evidence but on a computer-assisted drawing that was published in a news story using information provided by an undisclosed eyewitness. (Remember the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the drawings of alleged Iraqi mobile weapons labs that turned out not to exist?)
- If the alleged chamber exists it is a “white elephant,” according to the analysis, and would not be appropriate for explosives testing. Underground tunnels located nearby would be much cheaper and easier for that purpose. (Why isn’t the IAEA expressing concern about those tunnels?)
- Reports about Iran scrubbing the site and demolishing the building of concern are incorrect. Google Earth satellite images reproduced in the analysis clearly show that the building remains standing.
The Parchin issue has become increasingly divisive and is clouding the larger debate about how to contain Iran’s nuclear program and prevent a military confrontation. Western officials complain that Iran is delaying the negotiation process to buy time for its nuclear buildup, but Western officials are unnecessarily complicating the process by wrangling over dubious technical claims. Diplomats should clear the air and focus on what matters – political negotiations to resolve the standoff.