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Satellite Images Show Further Construction at Suspected Iranian Nuclear Weapons Site

Satellite images show that Iran has continued construction on a possible underground military complex and has tried to hide evidence that it tested explosives that could be used in the detonation of a nuclear weapon, The Daily Beast reported on Monday.

The satellite images of the Parchin military base, which were taken on January 19 and analyzed by the private intelligence firm Stratfor, showed that Iran had built a tunnel into an underground complex and had paved over the site of previous explosive testing. Both activities suggest that Iran might be trying to hide certain activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Sim Tack, an analyst for Stratfor, told The Daily Beast that the images didn’t necessarily show that Iran is “cheating on the nuclear deal.” However, he added,“The images show Iran was going through the motions to hide what it’s done before, and it is still…developing facilities that the IAEA may or may not have access to.”

Comparing the new satellite images with ones of the same site in 2010 show that the area where suspected nuclear testing took place has been paved over, with nearby vegetation and soil, which could had residue from the testing, removed.

While the sanitizing of the area near where the high-explosive experiments occurred has been reported before, the completion of the nearby tunnel is new. Stratfor said that they have images from 2014 showing construction equipment near the tunnel, and it appears that the tunnel is now completed. “They were still going forward with that construction during the [nuclear] talks,” Tack observed.

It isn’t clear what the tunnel leads to, but it was speculated that it could house part of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The United States first discovered that Iran was testing ballistic missile engines at Parchin in 1997.

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program in January after announcing the end of nuclear-related sanctions. The U.S. had originally planned to impose the sanctions, described by an expert as the “bare minimum,” at the end of December, but delayed imposing them due to pressure from Iran.

An official from the Obama administration did not comment on the images, but told The Daily Beast that IAEA inspectors could go to the site if the area was deemed suspicious. The official said that the nuclear deal “means the IAEA will have the access it needs to any suspicious location going forward. Such transparency will ensure that these past activities will not occur again, and if they do, that they will be quickly detected.”

However, IAEA inspectors who arrived at Parchin in September were not allowed inside a key site. The process was described by Emily Landau, in The Looming Global Nuclear Weapons Crisis, which was published in the January 2016 issue of The Tower Magazine.

The first event that tested Iran’s interpretation of managed access was the inspection of the military facility at Parchin over this past summer, in the context of the IAEA’s investigation of Iran’s past weaponization work. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had already made it quite clear over the months of negotiations with the P5+1 that Iran would never allow inspectors entry into its military facilities, and he and various military leaders reiterated this message when the JCPOA was announced, and in the aftermath of the deal. What happened in the Parchin inspection, it emerged, was that Iran collected soil samples from within the facility, while IAEA cameras monitored the process from outside.

The implication for future inspections, Landau wrote, is that “this was the closest that Iran would allow the IAEA to get to inspecting suspicious military facilities.”

Shortly after that incident, Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general of the IAEA, and David Albright, the head of the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-proliferation think-tank, wrote that “the physical presence of trained, experienced inspectors, with the ability to investigate the building or site up close, is critical to detecting the best places to sample, particularly in the case of a country that has a history of violating its safeguards obligations.”

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