Parchin, incidentally, is a side show. The IAEA wants to examine a large containment chamber where hydrodynamic tests reportedly had taken place before 2004. But an IAEA visit now may not uncover much -- and not just because Iran has had plenty of time to hide any incriminating evidence in the eight-plus years since the alleged activity took place. The testing experiments that were reportedly conducted there used surrogate material to simulate nuclear components. Unless nuclear material was present for some other reason, IAEA environmental sampling would not detect any telltale signs, giving Iran an excuse to trumpet its vindication.
Nevertheless, the wrangling over Parchin is a microcosm of a larger debate about whether Iran is dealing with the international community in good faith. At the IAEA board of governors' March 8 meeting in Vienna, Iranian Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh sought to put a positive spin on what he called Iran's "proactive and cooperative approach." The response by IAEA officials, however, reflected a very different characterization. Director General Yukiya Amano said Soltanieh's words were not "factually correct."
In Vienna, those are fighting words. Amano said Iran had sought to impose restrictions that would make it impossible for the agency to properly carry out its verification work. Herman Nackaerts, head of the IAEA Safeguards Department, explained that Iran sought to confine the IAEA's questions and refuse it the right to pose follow-up queries to Iran's answers. Iran also continues to refuse to provide design information regarding new nuclear facilities under construction and updated design information about the Arak research reactor. Such reporting is required in IAEA safeguards rules that Iran had agreed to in 2003 and then unilaterally abrogated four years later.
The issue of design information for new nuclear facilities is particularly relevant because Iran wants to restrict talks with the IAEA to the set of outstanding questions about alleged past activities -- and not focus on the ongoing and potential future nuclear activity that is of most concern to the international community. Iran does allow inspection of its enrichment work at Natanz and Fordow. If Fordow had not been discovered by Western intelligence agencies, however, Iran surely would not have revealed it voluntarily. Concerned countries want Iran to agree to come clean about all new nuclear facilities.
Iran has hinted that, in talks with the international powers, it will seek to have all negotiations over its nuclear activity channeled through the IAEA. If that will create space for a face-saving compromise on grounds that the issues are of a technical and not political nature, it might not be a bad idea. However, the manner in which Iran dealt with the IAEA over the smaller question of Parchin will not give the United States and its partners any reason to think that the bigger questions about Iran's far-reaching nuclear program are any more likely to be resolved by going through Vienna.