In what appears to be another indication of a clandestine military nuclear program in Iran, the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security released new satellite imagery on Friday showing suspicious activity at the Parchin military base near Tehran.
The satellite images, dated Aug. 15, show "pink tent-like material over two buildings," which had apparently been used for "high explosive experiments," according to an ISIS report. Earlier this month, ISIS reported that "sanitation and displacement" work had been carried out around these two buildings in late July. This latest report suggests more cover-up activity was undertaken since then. Diplomatic sources told Reuters on Friday that the pink material could in fact be either scaffolding or tarpaulin, which, according to the ISIS report indicates a desire to "hide any sanitization or other activity there from satellite cameras."
According to ISIS, one of the buildings may be an explosives chamber where a neutron initiator was tested. "In such a neutron initiator test, the number of neutrons is very small and many of the activated materials would have had relatively short half-lives" and therefore would be more difficult to detect, ISIS said on Aug. 1.
The latest imagery indicates an attempt to "conceal further clean-up activity from overhead satellites or to contain the activity inside," ISIS said on Friday."Depending on how effective of a seal the tarp provides, the goal could be to continue sanitizing the inside and outside of the building that is suspected to contain particles indicative of nuclear weapons development work. Alternatively, tarps could provide a cover for the demolition of the buildings, or portions of them, while also containing the spread of potentially contaminated debris."
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have repeatedly been denied access to Parchin. The issue also came up on Friday, when IAEA and Iranian officials met for another round of talks in Vienna. The two sides failed to reach an agreement over the U.N. nuclear inspection and verification regime relating to Iran's nuclear program. Access to Parchin, as well as to other sensitive sites and facilities, are among the outstanding issues.
"The discussions today were intensive, but important differences remain between Iran and the agency that prevented [an] agreement," IAEA Deputy Director-General for Safeguards Herman Nackaerts said in a statement on Friday. "At the moment we have no plans for a follow-up meeting," he said.
An upcoming IAEA report is expected to show Iran has continued to defy the West. According to Western sources familiar with the report, over the past several months Tehran installed additional enrichment centrifuges in its Fordo facility, which is buried deep inside a mountain to protect it against a military strike.
Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iran's English-language PressTV channel on Friday that the two sides "made progress." Soltanieh said the parties held "intensive discussions, under a constructive environment" but still have issues that would have to be "worked out at a later stage."
(To view the full interview, click here)
Asked if Iran's national security concern was raised, Soltanieh said that the Iranian delegation made clear that the issue is very "delicate" as far as Iran is concerned. "Iran's national security should be protected, we need patience and hard work," he said. When asked about the recent report alleging a nuclear cover-up at Parchin, Soltanieh said, "They (the West) just try to exaggerate. [This is] nothing to be concerned about. The IAEA visited the site and reported no evidence of nuclear activity."
In a reaction to the latest report on Iran's activities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his concern over the implications of Iran's defiance.
"Just yesterday, we received additional proof of the fact that Iran is continuing to make accelerated progress toward achieving nuclear weapons while totally ignoring international demands," Netanyahu said in a statement on Friday shortly after meeting U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who is visiting the region.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beytenu) also warned against a nuclear Iran over the weekend.
"Those who discount this scenario and cite the examples of the nuclearization of Pakistan, India and North Korea don't know what they are talking about; Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran," Lieberman told Israel's Channel 2 Friday. Lieberman also attacked what he called the "senseless chatter" over the merits of a pre-emptive attack on Iran, saying this "compromises our deterrence; we stepped up our rhetoric to the point that if we do not do anything we are going to pay a price for that."
Iran has also been front and center in the U.S. presidential campaign in recent weeks. While the White House has repeatedly said a strike on Iran would be premature and stressed that economic sanctions could still prove effective, President Barack Obama's challenger, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, has indicated he would adopt a more aggressive policy toward Iran.
In an interview with CBS on Friday Romney said, "We certainly have to maintain all options that we have. But Iran becoming nuclear and potentially providing fissile material to Hezbollah or another of the groups that are associated with that nation ... that's unacceptable."
"No question in my view that we can put all matter of pressure upon the regime that's there, but they have to also know that a military option is one which we would be willing to consider if they do not take action to dissuade a course towards nuclearization," Romney said.
Asked if Iran could become nuclear under his watch, Romney said, "It's unacceptable for this nation (the U.S.) to have Iran become nuclear [and] have a nuclear weapon."
On Friday, the White House's National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor said the revelations on Iran's new centrifuges were troubling, and accused Iran of "continuing to violate its international obligations."
“The president has led an unprecedented effort to increase the pressure on Iran to live up to its international obligations," Vietor said. "Because of the president's leadership, Iran is under greater pressure than ever before. Just last month [Iran's] President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad said they are facing ’the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country.’ We continue to believe that there is time and space for our current approach of diplomacy paired with unrelenting pressure to achieve our shared objective — preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Vietor said the White House believed a diplomatic solution was still possible, despite the recent reports on the new centrifuges at Fordo.
Over the weekend, The New York Times cited another administration official who said the new centrifuges could “add to Iran’s ability to produce more 20 percent low-enriched uranium."
Converting the high-quality uranium into nuclear fuel would be relatively easy and would constitute what is called a "breakout," the paper reported. The official told The New York Times that “any breakout would not be a quiet affair; the IAEA is in the facility regularly and they would detect a move.”