Parchin revisited

On 5 October, an explosion rocked the outskirts of south-eastern Tehran. Initial reports of the incident were fuzzy, but that didn't stop some people getting very, very excited.

The explosion reportedly took place at a large military-controlled site called Parchin (پارچین). And Parchin, y'see, is kind of famous: the IAEA have already reported that it was in a nondescript warehouse at Parchin that Iran developed techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds (UDDs or Nano-diamonds)

Anyway, the combination of the terms "explosion" and "Parchin" had a lot of pundits frothing at the mouth. Was this a spectacular case of foreign sabotage, as some analysts alleged caused the explosion back in 2011 that levelled Iran's main ICBM development site?

Erm, probably not. As is usually the case with spectacular explosions in Iran, they're much more likely to be caused by the old burning-cigarette-flicked-into-dimethylhydrazine than by foreign commandos or drone strikes.

Evidence revealed in the weeks since the blast has bolstered the idea that we shouldn't be too concerned by the blast. As it turned out, while there was indeed an explosion at Parchin, it occurred nowhere near the building where Iran dabbled with nuclear weapon components a decade ago. That's been proven by David Albright's ISIS organisation, who have checked the satellite pictures and found that the explosion took place at an industrial site far to the south-west of the notorious building where Iran was suspected to have conducted nuclear weapons work.

Parchin Explosion site

As that picture shows, the area known as Parchin is big. Really, really big - like almost the size of Tehran. And scattered across that large area are multiple facilities for production of explosives and chemicals. Indeed, the sheer size of Parchin has a lot to do with explaining how the IAEA picked the wrong spot to visit back in January and November 2005 when it was granted access to Parchin. Asked by their Iranian hosts to select just one of Parchin's four zones to visit, and then only one building from that zone, the inspectors had about as much chance of finding the location of Iran's nuclear weapon experiments as a contestant on Deal or No Deal does in picking the million-dollar suitcase.

To be fair, the IAEA knew far less back in 2005 about what Iran did at Parchin than what they know today. And it's worth recounting what the IAEA does know now about Parchin, particularly when this article from German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung tells us pretty much all of it. Here we go:

  • In the late 1990s, Iran's military designed an explosive containment chamber suitable for conducting sub-critical nuclear weapon experiments. The bus-size steel chamber was built inside a secure building next to the Jajrud river within the Parchin complex.

  • In 2003, Iran's AMAD (آماد) organisation, which ran the pre-2004 nuclear weapons programme for Iran's Ministry of Defence, used the chamber to conduct experiments related to a neutron initiator and an implosion system. The implosion system experiments used flash x-ray equipment to determine whether Iran's multi-point detonation system provided a sufficiently symmetrical implosion to keep that fission going.

  • The experiments were project-managed by Iranian scientists Fereidoun Abbasi-Davani(فریدون عباسی دوانی) and Majid Shahriari (مجید شهریاری), both of whom are known to be members of AMAD. (As we've discussed previously, Abbasi-Davani went on to become head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation before being given the boot by President Rouhani; Shahriari was killed in a 2010 attack by a motorbike-riding assassin.)

  • There were other presumed AMAD members present at the experiments. Mohammed Reza Sedighi Saber, (محمدرضا صديقي صابر) another scientist, was responsible for simulation and computer-assisted analysis. Ali Reza Mola Heidar (علیرضا مولا حیدر), an instrumentation expert, contributed to the development of the flash x-ray system and the positioning of the neutron detectors. (These days, Sedighi runs classes in electronics - and Mola Heidar is off the radar.)

Here's how that Parchin Experimental Team probably looked:


All in all, some damning stuff, right? It's because these experiments were so unabashedly single-use that the IAEA has spent so much political capital trying to get access to the building at Parchin where the chamber is now thought to have been located. And it's for much the same reason that Iran has been so zealously honing its landscape gardening skills around that same building.

That's Parchin in a nutshell. But if you want to know more about Parchin's chequered past, you should read this great article by Maseh Zarif. It's full of interesting nuggets. Did you know, for example, that the first chemical production factory at Parchin was built in the 1930s - by the Nazis?!

Maybe that explains why things keep going wrong at Parchin...

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