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IAEA Suspicious Of Iran's Parchin Military Base


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Talks with Iran on its controversial nuclear program are set to intensify in the coming days. Tomorrow in Vienna, authorities from the International Atomic Energy Agency meet again with Iranian representatives. They'll discuss some past suspicious nuclear activities. Next week, other talks involving the United States, Europe, Russia and China are set to resume.

Now, as they talk, banking sanctions and an oil embargo remain in effect. And the big question here is how, if at all, those sanctions will change Iran's behavior. More from NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: For a year now, Iran and the IAEA have been stuck on one thing - what took place at a military base called Parchin, about 20 miles southeast of Tehran? The suspicions run deep, says Jon Wolfsthal, former nuclear policy adviser to Vice President Biden, now deputy director of the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute.

JON WOLFSTHAL: The suspicion is that Iran used the Parchin site to test explosions involving uranium metal. It's something that you would only need to do if you were developing a nuclear weapon. And if in fact there's still evidence of these tests at Parchin, it would be as close to a smoking gun of an Iranian nuclear weapons program as we're likely to find.

SHUSTER: Those tests are believed to have taken place as far back as 2004. But for most of the past year there have been efforts, clearly visible on satellite photos to clean up the site. Small buildings have been razed and much of the area has been bulldozed, thus raising suspicions at the IAEA that Iran has something significant to hide at Parchin.

This is the starting point for the talks to be held tomorrow in Vienna. But top officials at the agency are already saying they are not optimistic Iran will be any more forthcoming than it's been for months.

Then there is the wider set of talks, involving the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China, which are expected to resume next week. Those talks have also nearly ground to a halt, says Mark Hibbs, who follows nuclear policy for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

MARK HIBBS: The Iranians have positioned themselves in a way where they can basically hold both of these negotiations in parallel hostage to each other, dangling carrots to one and then the other in a way which basically may paralyze the further development of both negotiations.

SHUSTER: Not all the experts agree about what IAEA inspectors might find if they are permitted onto the Parchin base. The main structure, believed to have hidden explosives test from the prying eyes of satellites, is still intact. Robert Kelley, a former official of the IAEA, believes the Iranians may have created an elaborate ruse, which they may spring on the agency sometime soon.

ROBERT KELLEY: Whatever's going on there is not consistent with an attempt to sanitize it. And I wonder if they don't have some game in mind like the building is actually pretty clean and they're going to let the IAEA come in and discover that.

SHUSTER: Whatever the case at Parchin, Iran is facing increasing pressures, including sharp banking sanctions imposed by the U.S., an oil embargo inflicted by Europe, and constant threats of an Israeli air attack on its nuclear sites. In a speech earlier this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the issue of Iran's preparedness.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: We are not seeking progress in the defense industry for conquest, Ahmadinejad said, nor for domination. We want to defend ourselves, our territory, our existence. We want it for deterrence, he said.

But despite defiant words from Iran's leaders, the U.S. and Europe are counting on the pressure being too much to bear, says Jon Wolfsthal.

WOLFSTHAL: I don't think there's any question that day by day things are getting harder for the Iranian people and harder for the Iranian leadership. We continue to see signs of increasing tension inside the Iranian system, that the sanctions are having an impact, and the different elements of support for the regime are questioning whether the nuclear program is worth all of this pain.

SHUSTER: That suggests that the U.S. and Europe are content to let the diplomatic effort continue in slow motion, without significant progress, while their other approaches take their toll.

Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.

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