To the naked eye, the photo above doesn't seem to show anything more than a couple of bland houses against a deary landscape. But a prominent nuclear-weapons researcher thinks it might display the concealment of Iran's nuclear program. All this over a few water stains.[top]
The site on display is Parchin, a military base in Iran. The nuclear watchdogs in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have twice been rebuffed from conducting inspections at the base this year. The IAEA's concern is that Iran is performing "detonations relevant to a potential nuclear-weapon development effort" at Parchin, as Global Security Newswire puts it.
But the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank, partnered with the satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe to snap the photo last month. The main white building is the facility where the IAEA suspects detonation work may have taken place. But it's the black lines dribbling from the right side of the building that gives the institute concern.
"The stream of water that appears to emanate from the building raises concerns that Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building," writes the institute's leader, David Albright, a former weapons inspector in Iraq. "Satellite images of the building from recent months do not show any similar activity at the site - indicating that such activity is not a regular occurrence at this building."
Water, of course, is not proof of a nuclear weapons program. There is a fair amount of circumstantial, incomplete evidence suggesting Iran is at least tiptoeing up to the edge of an atomic bomb program. But this is not, to borrow a phrase, a smoking gun that might come in the form of a super-soaker.
What it does show are grounds for the inspections that the IAEA wants. There's no reason why further inspections are a fast-track for war. The Obama administration doesn't want a war with Iran that it fears could turn into a fiasco, even as it bolsters the U.S. Navy's presence off Iran's shores. The Air Force's top officer doesn't exactly want his planes used for a bombing raid. Even Israeli intelligence officials are speaking out against a strike on Iran.
What's more, the world has already seen a movie where overhead satellite photos of buildings said to contain scary stuff prompt a massive assault that upends the Middle East. It doesn't end well.
The pictures come at a crucial time for the Iranian nuclear program. After months of diplomatic acrimony, Teheran has responded to international sanctions by opening the door to a new round of negotiations. Diplomats from Iran, China, Germany, the United States, Russia, Britain and France will meet on May 23 in Baghdad to see if there's a peaceful way of resolving the international community's questions about the nuclear program. Figuring out what Iran scrubbed when it gave Parchin a bath might be part of that parley.
Image credit: Digital Globe-ISIS