Do Albright and ISIS Buy Parchin Clean-up Story or Don’t They?

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) refers to itself as a “non-partisan institution that focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.” But it’s sometimes demonstrated a tendency to lean toward, if not the right, the alarmist about nuclear proliferation. As late as 2002, its “ubiquitous” president David Albright, oft quoted in print and on television, issued nuclear warnings about Iraq. In January of this year, Albright and the ISIS staff published a report titled Reality Check: Shorter and Shorter Timeframe if Iran Decides to Make Nuclear Weapons.

ISIS also endorsed the unconvincing story that Iran built an explosives chamber to test components of a nuclear weapon and carry out a simulated nuclear explosion (the Danilenko affair, if you will). Albright told Toby Warrick of the Washington Post in November of last year:

“It remains for Danilenko to explain his assistance to Iran. … At the very least, Danilenko should have known exactly why the Iranians were interested in his research and expertise. The IAEA information suggests he has provided more than he has admitted.”

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter, among others, debunked that story. One can’t help but wonder if the direction ISIS takes has, at times, been determined by its funding, which runs the gamut from the Ploughshares Fund to the Rockefeller Foundation to the extremely conservative Smith Richardson Foundation. Still, ISIS is quick to admit mistakes, if not always learn from them.

In his latest piece for Inter Press Service Alleged Photos of “Clean-up” at Iran’s Parchin Site Lack Credibility, Gareth Porter provides an example of how a stance ISIS takes plays into hawks’ hands (er, talons).

ISIS Executive Director David Albright told interviewer Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio in July 2009 that he had “gotten a tip” in September 2004 that high explosives testing at Parchin “could be used for nuclear weapons”.

ISIS then published a series of satellite photographs that the organisation said were “consistent” with facilities for such nuclear testing.

The satellite images were then cited by Undersecretary of State John Bolton as alarming evidence of covert Iranian nuclear weapons work. … But Bolton and the IAEA had only vague suspicions rather than hard intelligence to go on.

Nevertheless:

The United States and its Western allies put strong pressure on the IAEA to get Iran to agree to a visit to Parchin.

More recently, writes Porter

News stories about satellite photographs suggesting efforts by Iran to “sanitise” [Parchin] … have added yet another layer to widely held suspicion that Iran must indeed be hiding a covert nuclear weapons programme.

But the story is suspect, in part because it is based on evidence that could only be ambiguous, at best. The claim does not reflect U.S. intelligence, and a prominent think tank that has published satellite photography related to past controversies surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme has not found any photographs supporting it.

That prominent think tank, this time demonstrating caution about drawing damning conclusions about Iran, is none other than ISIS. Porter again:

Paul Brannan, a specialist on interpretation of satellite photography for ISIS, told the New York Times that. … he could not find any photographs of sites at Parchin that suggested clean-up. He told the Times. … “There is no way to know whether or not the activity you see in a particular satellite image is cleansing or just regular work.” Brannan added, “There’s a lot of activity there – always.”

Perhaps ISIS is responding to increasing reluctance on the part of the Obama administration, and even many in Israel, to refrain from attacking Iran. If only we had confidence that ISIS — and the International Atomic Agency, as well — speak without first licking their fingers and testing the political winds.

Hold the presses — this just in (as they say), from Haaretz:

A U.S. non-proliferation expert said on Tuesday he has identified a building at the Parchin military site in Iran suspected of containing, currently or previously, a high-explosive test chamber the UN nuclear watchdog wants to visit.

David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he studied commercial satellite imagery and found a building located on a relatively small and isolated compound at Parchin that fit a description in the November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report.