New York Times: Iran has agreed to allow nuclear inspectors from the United Nations into a major military complex that the United States has long suspected of being a secret site for nuclear weapons development, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday.
New York Times

By DAVID E. SANGER

WASHINGTON - Iran has agreed to allow nuclear inspectors from the United Nations into a major military complex that the United States has long suspected of being a secret site for nuclear weapons development, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency said Wednesday.

The decision by Iran's leaders comes after several months of foreign pressure and internal debate in Tehran about whether to permit the inspectors into the military base, which Iran has long insisted had nothing to do with its nuclear programs.

American officials have long suspected that testing of high explosives in one area of the military site, called Parchin, could be part of a program to develop a nuclear warhead. Iran has insisted that all of its nuclear work is for civilian purposes.

Bush administration officials said that they assumed that if Iran's military agreed to allow the inspectors to enter the site, it was only because the country had wiped away any traces of prohibited activity. But a Western diplomat familiar with the energy agency's methods said that it planned to conduct a number of environmental tests that would make it difficult to successfully conceal evidence of past nuclear activity.

The decision to open the military plant suggests that Iran has chosen to follow a very different strategy than the one pursued by North Korea, which threw out international inspectors two years ago and has not allowed them to return.

Iran, in contrast, has slowly opened a number of facilities, but only when forced to do so because of disclosures by exile groups. The opening of those sites has required Tehran to acknowledge that it hid much of its program for 18 years.

Iranian officials apparently decided that the risk of further disclosures, if there are any, was less than that of seeming to defy the international inspectors.

"The Iranians are playing a shrewd game of giving international opinion just enough to keep the wolves at bay," said Ashton B. Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project, a study group at Harvard and Stanford Universities, and a former assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. "At least they are showing a sensitivity to the perception they create, even though I don't believe that instinct will be enough to turn around Iran's nuclear ambitions."

Iran's agreement to allow inspection, the energy agency notes, does not guarantee that inspectors will be permitted into all the corners of the military base where they want to go.

American officials said they believed the inspectors would be permitted to see any location where there was no evidence of current nuclear work, or where such evidence had been removed.

"They are great at removing soil," said one American nuclear expert with long experience dealing with the Iranian program. "They have mastered the art of cat-and-mouse when it comes to inspections."

Still, Iran's agreement to allow access to the military base is something of a victory - perhaps temporary, perhaps not - for the agency. Its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, argued in an interview last month that applying slow, constant pressure on Iran would yield more results than immediately taking the country to the United Nations Security Council for sanctions, the path the Bush administration has advocated.

Dr. ElBaradei has never publicly accused Iran of hiding a weapons program - the charge made by the Bush administration - and instead has asked Iran to allow inspectors access to a growing list of sites.

His handling of Iran has become one of the many points of tension with the White House, and the United States has exchanged little information with the international agency about Iran or other nuclear programs.

Administration officials said last year they wanted to oust Dr. ElBaradei when his term expires later this year, but they have failed to back an alternative candidate to head the agency. Some American officials now say they think Dr. ElBaradei is likely to stay in place.

As recently as a month ago, the Iranians were expressing reluctance to open the military base.

"They should have evidence that there are nuclear activities, not just 'We heard from someone that there is a dual-use equipment that we want to see,' " said one Iranian official who was involved in negotiations with the energy agency in early December.

Parchin is a decades-old military site southeast of Tehran where inspectors believe the country is testing conventional high explosives of a type used to detonate nuclear weapons. It appears to be the location that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was referring to in November when he said that new American intelligence suggested Iran was working to shrink a nuclear device to a size that could fit atop the country's missiles.

American officials will not describe the intelligence that led Mr. Powell to make his statement. But an American official, Jackie W. Sanders, told the energy agency's board of governors in December that Iran had attempted to obtain equipment "in the nuclear military area."

Parchin was also the site that Iran used to develop its long-range missiles. But it will pose a difficult target for inspectors. It is a vast installation with hundreds of bunkers, test sites and buildings.

The Institute for Science and International Security, an arms control group in Washington, issued a report last year saying that within Parchin was "an isolated, separately secured site which may be involved in developing nuclear weapons."

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