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Iran's Parchin complex: Why are nuclear inspectors so focused on it?

The IAEA's determination to gain access to Parchin, an Iranian military complex that may hold clues to past weapons-related work, is unusual and could jeopardize its credibility.

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This August 2004 file satellite image shows the military complex at Parchin, Iran.

DigitalGlobe - Institute for Science and International Security/AP

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Parchin. In the annals of Iran's controversial nuclear program, the sprawling military base southeast of Tehran may hold clues to past weapons-related work – or it may not.

Parchin has been turned into a high-profile test case of Iran's willingness to be transparent by the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, which says it has new information on past weapons-related activities there, and seeks access to the site for the first time in seven years.

But veteran inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say the singular focus on visiting Parchin is a departure for the Agency that could jeopardize its credibility, considering the host of issues that remain between the IAEA and Iran. Also unusual is how open and specific the IAEA has been about what exactly it wants to see, which could yield doubts about the credibility of any eventual inspection.

"I'm puzzled that the IAEA wants to in this case specify the building in advance, because you end up with this awkward situation," says Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's head of safeguards until mid-2010.

"First of all, if it gets delayed it can be sanitized. And it's not very good for Iran. Let's assume [inspectors] finally get there and they find nothing. People will say, 'Oh, it's because Iran has sanitized it,'" says Mr. Heinonen, who is now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "But in reality it may have not been sanitized. Iran is also a loser in that case. I don't know why [the IAEA] approach it this way, which was not a standard practice; but they may have a reason."

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