Iran’s Military Complex at Parchin and the Nuclear Connection
Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses a serious threat to American national security interests. Iran has been working to develop the key components of a nuclear weapons capability for decades – covertly when it can and openly when exposed – in contravention of nuclear nonproliferation pacts it has signed and international obligations it is required to meet. The regime has waged an intensive denial-and-deception campaign intended to facilitate the development of critical technologies and infrastructure and, ultimately, the fulfillment of its nuclear ambitions.
Tehran’s nuclear weapons pursuit has advanced along three interrelated, parallel tracks: acquiring fissile material, weaponization and bomb design, and delivery vehicle development. The acquisition of fissile material is based at facilities near Esfahan, where Iran converts yellowcake into uranium gas, and at Natanz and outside Qom, where Iran enriches uranium gas toward levels required to produce bomb fuel. Iran’s nuclear organizations are also building the foundation for a separate plutonium route for producing bomb fuel at Arak. These facilities, originally built covertly, may be supplemented by additional undeclared sites. The weaponization track of the program, a technically complex step that is nonetheless considered to be less difficult than the mastery of fissile material production, has most recently been associated with a military facility based outside of Tehran at Parchin. Iran used the Parchin facility to conduct nuclear weapons-related experiments, according to information vetted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Many observers have tended to dismiss the weaponization program on the grounds that Iran supposedly suspended it in 2003. Tehran’s consistent refusals to allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin facility, therefore, have received less attention than they merit. That facility, which recent satellite imagery shows to have been extensively reconfigured over the past few months, is of interest not only because of the presumed weaponization facilities there, but because it is a central and vital part of Iran’s diverse and disturbing military industrial program.
The Parchin Military Complex (PMC) is a sprawling installation run by Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). PMC lies approximately 20 miles southeast of Tehran in and around the small town of Parchin, located in Tehran province’s Pakdasht county. The town is accessible from Tehran via Khavaran Highway. The primary access road from that highway into Parchin lies approximately 17 miles southeast of Tehran. A secondary road from Tehran approaches Parchin from the north. Road access into at least part of PMC and the surrounding areas appears restricted by a large checkpoint positioned in the town of Parchin. There are several small villages in the vicinity of Parchin and PMC, including Hammamak, Changi, Sorkh Hesar, Mamazan, and Kabudgonbad. PMC lies approximately 60 and 120 miles from the Fordow and Natanz enrichment facilities, respectively.
Iran received outside assistance in developing PMC from its origins 80 years ago. Nazi Germany constructed a chemical production complex at Parchin in the 1930s. Several European companies, including SNPE (France), Fritz Werner GmbH (Germany), Rheinmetall (Germany), and Qerlikeon-Burhle (Switzerland), have assisted in PMC’s expansion since then. The location of recent construction sites visible in satellite imagery—bearing military signatures—and the location of PMC-related facilities indicate that the complex now extends well beyond Parchin proper.
Iranian regime-controlled media references to activities at PMC are sparse. Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei, accompanied by the defense minister at the time, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Vice Admiral Ali Shamkhani, visited PMC in a publicized tour of the facility in 1998. In 1999, Iranian television announced the opening of a chemical manufacturing facility at Parchin and the inauguration of a new explosives production line. Other available information and the functions of several Iranian military industrial firms connected to Parchin indicate that PMC has been a key hub for the development, testing, and production of military materiel, including weapons and explosives.
The Defense Industries Organization (DIO), a MODAFL entity that is involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, is connected to Parchin through multiple front companies and may be the overall administrator of the PMC. The Japanese government had identified the Parchin Missile Industries Division as an alias for the DIO Missile Industries Group as early as 2003. An Iranian construction and engineering firm, ATEC Consultants, has cited on its website the execution of a contract for residential units at Parchin belonging to DIO. Another Iranian contractor, Novin Balabar Company, installed passenger elevators in a building at Parchin for DIO. E.F. International S.A., a Swiss company involved in lightning protection systems, cites “Defence Industries – Chemical Dept, Parchin” as a reference for its previous contracting work.
DIO-owned Parchin Chemical Industries (PCI), which has a factory address near the road leading into Parchin and a main office address within a MODAFL complex in Tehran, produces ammunition, explosives, and rocket and missile propellants. PCI was also associated with a 2011 shipment of weapons and explosives—including gunpowder, propelling charges, detonators, solid rockets, and RDX explosives—destined for Syria and seized by Turkish authorities. Another chemical-producing firm, Zeinoddin Chemical Company, likely the same firm as Shahid Zeinoddin Chemical Industries, has an address that is nearly identical to that of PCI. The Aerospace Industries Organization—the MODAFL entity coordinating and managing Iran’s missile program—may also have a presence at Parchin; a firm named Moshaverane Tarh was hired by Shahid Fasihi Industries to build a central engine room for AIO at Parchin. Other defense-related entities, including Shahid Moslemi Industries, have sought construction assistance for areas located within the PMC.
Nuclear Weapons Activities and PMC
Iran possesses key components of a nuclear weapons capability, including a stockpile of enriched uranium that it can convert to weapons-grade fuel in short order and ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. The regime has also acquired design information for a nuclear device and has conducted experimentation and research that would facilitate the construction of a working nuclear device, according to information gathered and assessed by the IAEA. Iran’s refusal to provide IAEA inspectors access to facilities and personnel involved in recent weaponization work, including at PMC, has been one element of its broader denial-and-deception campaign.
Iranian officials have rebuffed IAEA requests to inspect an area within the complex that the IAEA’s information identifies as a hydrodynamic testing site. This type of testing and related experiments are used to observe and measure the detonation of a nuclear device and its various explosive and other non-nuclear components, thereby testing the validity of a nuclear device design. The core of the device used in such tests may contain non-fissile material that does not cause a nuclear chain reaction, but instead serves as an experimental substitute for fissile material (weapons-grade uranium or plutonium). The IAEA stated in its November 2011 report:
- Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments. The explosives vessel, or chamber, is said to have been put in place at Parchin in 2000. A building was constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object at a location at the Parchin military complex. A large earth berm was subsequently constructed between the building containing the cylinder and a neighbouring building, indicating the probable use of high explosives in the chamber.
Such experiments are, according to the IAEA, “strong indicators of possible weapon development” and “could be used to prevent the contamination of the site with nuclear material.” The IAEA carried out limited inspections of areas within PMC in 2005 based on information indicating that Iran carried out testing there possibly using nuclear material; however, Iran granted only limited, controlled access for inspectors to areas that did not include the location where the experiments are now believed to have taken place. The IAEA twice sent a team to Iran earlier this year and requested access to Parchin, including the area described in the IAEA report; Iran refused to grant access both times. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) earlier this year published imagery analysis of Parchin and concluded that it identified the building that contains or previously contained the aforementioned vessel in an isolated area northeast of the primary PMC buildings. Commercial satellite imagery shows that the neighboring building described by the IAEA does not appear to have been built as of March 2000 and that the areas around the site were unpaved then. At that time an object approximately 20 meters long and six meters wide was in the spot where the building visible in recent imagery is now erected. The IAEA did not note the exact dimensions of the containment vessel in its report; however, subsequent media reports reference a vessel that is 19 meters long by 7.6 meters wide with reinforced concrete. Another building approximately 150 yards north appears to have been built between 2000 and 2004.
Concerns over Iran’s previous and ongoing activity at PMC increased in November 2011 and February 2012 following reports of sanitization activity was detected in satellite imagery of the site. One official from an IAEA member country quoted in November 2011 said, “Freight trucks, special haulage vehicles and cranes were seen entering and leaving…Some equipment and dangerous materials were removed from the site.” The timing of such activity, days after the IAEA released details on testing at PMC, suggests that Iran attempted to remove evidence of its activities there. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano reiterated in March 2012 that “We have some indication that activities are ongoing at the Parchin site. It makes us believe that going there sooner is better than later.” An Iranian clean-up of the site could involve efforts to remove the containment vessel and eliminate detectable traces of low-enriched uranium, in the form of metal, used in hydrodynamic testing. Months have passed since the Iranians were alerted to the IAEA’s possession of information on this specific testing site at PMC, providing ample time for Iran to sanitize the site. Commercial satellite imagery of the site taken on July 25, 2012 appears to show the end result of months of physical disruption of the site. The building believed to have housed the explosives chamber remains standing; however, nearby buildings have been demolished or tampered with, the roads connecting various buildings have been razed, a perimeter security fence has been removed, and machinery and debris have been redeployed from the site. It is difficult to assess with a high level of confidence if the entire site could be cleansed of detectable traces, but, at a minimum, the extensive physical disruption of the site will make any potential detection effort challenging.
Weapons Program Personnel and PMC
An unconfirmed German magazine report identified the following Iranian scientists as having been involved with nuclear weapons-related experiments, including some at PMC: Majid Shahriari, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, Mohammad Reza Sedighi Saber, and Ali Reza Mola Heidar. Davani (previously known for his involvement in the weaponization program) and Shahriari are identified in the report as former “project managers partly responsible for developing a special array of neutron detectors and installing it outside of the test chamber.” They have both been affiliated with Shahid Beheshti University’s (SBU) Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Application Group. Their affiliation with SBU, which is subordinate to MODAFL and conducts research related to nuclear weapons development, is noted in at least two co-authored works published in 2009 and 2011. Both were targeted in direct action operations on November 29, 2010; Shahriari was killed, but Davani survived and was subsequently appointed the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Sedighi Saber is identified in the report as an alleged MODAFL expert “entrusted with the simulation and computer-assisted analysis of the experiment.” Open source references to Sedighi Saber are sparse; however, there is a 2009 work authored by an “M R Sedighi” (providing a contact email address “firstname.lastname@example.org”) affiliated with Amir Kabir University of Technology’s Mechanical Engineering department. Amir Kabir University also has links to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The types of high-explosives experiments conducted at the PMC also appear to have been assisted by foreign expertise, namely that provided by Vyechslav Danilenko, a former Soviet nuclear weapons expert, whom Iran hired “ostensibly to assist...in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds [by detonation].” He provided such expertise to Iran in addition to lectures on explosion physics. The IAEA reported in 2011 that publications by a foreign expert, identified by ISIS as Danilenko, helped the agency confirm the date the explosives chamber at PMC was built and some of its design features. Additionally, the IAEA asserted that it has strong indications that Danilenko assisted Iran in developing a high-explosives initiation system, which can be used to trigger the detonation of a nuclear weapon. It has not been confirmed whether this system was incorporated into the testing conducted at PMC.
Producing fissile material is the most difficult step in achieving a nuclear weapons capability. The type of experimentation Iran conducted at Parchin would support the next step: the design and construction of a bomb containing a fissile material core in the form of metal. Advancing the weaponization track can occur in parallel to fissile material production or even prior to any fissile material production capability. The latter is evident in the case of Iran, which conducted weaponization experiments at PMC as it was building enrichment facilities and several years prior to commencing (known) enriched uranium production and stockpiling. Any data Iran acquired as a result of the PMC testing would contribute toward the eventual construction of a nuclear device. Related modeling studies assessing the behavior of the inner core of a nuclear device, which Iran is alleged to have conducted as recently as 2008 and 2009 according to information provided to the IAEA by two IAEA member states, would similarly contribute to the development of a nuclear device. Iran also organized a four-year research program beginning in 2006 to develop a system for initiating a chain reaction inside a bomb, according to information provided to the IAEA by a member state.
The time required for Iran to build a device for housing a fissile material core is dependent on its technical expertise. The extent of Iran’s progress at PMC, along with any additional research and follow-on experimentation, would affect its ability to design a bomb and potentially expedite an effort to build one. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said that it would take Iran about 12 months to construct a crude nuclear weapon. One outside nuclear weapons expert, Gregory Jones of the Nonproliferation Education Policy Center, assesses that it would take two to six months for Iran to build the non-nuclear components of a weapon, noting that it could complete such construction prior to producing a highly-enriched uranium core.
Whatever the timeframe, Iran’s weaponization-related work, including at Parchin, has significant implications for a prevention policy that is premised on detecting Iran’s weaponization and attempting to respond to its construction of a nuclear weapon. Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium to enrich to weapons-grade material for several nuclear weapons. It has been reducing the time needed to do so while expanding and hardening its declared enrichment sites. That capability, seen in the context of Iran’s broader nuclear program, presents the following problem: current U.S. policy accepts a high level of risk and corresponding likelihood of failure in preventing a nuclear Iran if the weaponization track is at an advanced stage. The possibility of other covert fissile material or weaponization activities would, moreover, further increase that risk level.