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Iran 'sanitizing' suspected nuclear test site, think tank says

May 31, 2012 | 12:42 pm

Parchin military complex

Iran has razed two buildings and bulldozed earth at the Parchin military complex where international nuclear monitors suspect a test of nuclear weapons explosives was carried out in 2003, a Washington think tank has alleged, based on recent satellite imagery.

The Institute for Science and International Security based its conclusions on satellite photos taken over the Parchin facility between April 9 and May 25, showing evidence of heavy equipment traffic around the suspected explosives test chamber and the eventual disappearance from the site of two auxiliary buildings.

The images from DigitalGlobe obtained by ISIS show that two buildings at Parchin visible in the earlier satellite photos were gone by May 25. The ISIS report described the razing of the buildings as "further sanitation" of the site where Iran is suspected of having earlier removed the nuclear blast chamber where a test of high explosives was allegedly conducted nine years ago.

"These activities raise further concerns of Iranian efforts to destroy evidence of alleged past nuclear weaponization activities," said the report written by David Albright, president and founder of ISIS, and Robert Avagyan, a research analyst at the think tank monitoring nuclear proliferation issues. The institute does consulting work for the U.S. government but is considered a neutral source of information on Iran's nuclear developments.

The report, published Wednesday, pointed out that the International Atomic Energy Agency has been consistently rebuffed in its efforts to gain access to the facility.

The IAEA hasn't commented on the report but posted news media accounts of the think tank's findings on the U.N. agency's website Thursday.

The United States, Israel and other allies contend that Tehran is preparing to develop nuclear weapons; Iran says it is enriching uranium for civilian purposes only. In an interview with France 24 television on Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated his nation's right to develop nuclear capabilities for energy and medical research.

 As Iranian officials and representatives of six major powers prepared to meet in Baghdad last week to discuss Western concerns about Iran's nuclear programs, a senior Iranian parliamentarian hinted that Tehran might be ready soon to grant IAEA inspectors access to Parchin. But the two-day Baghdad meeting ended without any progress on the access issue other than an agreement for negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to meet their Iranian counterparts in Moscow on June 18-19.

"The newest image raises concerns that Iran is attempting to raze the site prior to allowing an IAEA visit," the ISIS report said of Parchin. "The razing of the two buildings may also indicate that Iran has no intention to allow inspectors access soon."

In 2005, U.N. nuclear monitors visited Parchin, 20 miles southeast of Tehran, but did not inspect the area that later came under Western suspicion as a nuclear test site. Since then, inspectors have been denied access, with Tehran arguing that Parchin is a conventional military site and outside the reach of the IAEA's nonproliferation inspections mandate.

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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Satellite photo: In this May 25 image from DigitalGlobe, two buildings at the Parchin military complex in Iran are no longer visible among traces of massive earth movement and heavy equipment traffic. Credit: DigitalGlobe / Institute for Science and International Security

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