A fire at the Natanz nuclear plant in Isfahan and a colossal explosion at the Khojir military complex outside Tehran reignited concerns about the deteriorating safety of the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile facilities. Despite the accidents, the country’s administration remained disinclined to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations.
Experts have frequently maintained that Iran’s unrestrained nuclear ambition and missile pursuit can have a domino effect in the region, unleashing horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation and increasing the probability of nuclear and radiological accidents in the area.
Notwithstanding Iranians cover-ups, commercial satellite images indicate that the Khojir site was possibly used to build nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong suspicion that the blast had something to do with the country’s nuclear or missile program.
Legally, Iran is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and can neither manufacture nuclear fissile material nor develop or conducts tests of nuclear weapons delivery vehicles. Besides, Iran has to cooperate with the IAEA to ascertain whether the recent Khojir blast happened due to Tehran’s nuclear activity or if it was a conventional explosion.
Last month, the IAEA board of governors passed a resolution demanding access to two nuclear sites where Tehran was thought to have stored or used undeclared nuclear material. However, the Iranian leadership refused to clarify the agency’s questions related to any nuclear material or activities. Moreover, the agency claimed that Iran had continued to increase its stockpiles of enriched uranium and remained in violation of the nuclear deal.
Iran is unprepared to cooperate with the IAEA, making it impossible for its inspectors to collect environmental samples at Khojir to resolve the mystery over the recent explosion. Determining the nature of the blast is, however, important to gauge Tehran’s commitment to the NPT.
Iran’s unrestrained nuclear ambition and missile pursuit can have a domino effect in the region, unleashing horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation and increasing the probability of nuclear and radiological accidents in the areahttps://t.co/txFFeTCVST
— Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal (@zafar_jaspal) July 8, 2020
Iran’s noncooperation with the world body will further strengthen the allegation that it has been secretly advancing its nuclear weapons program under the disguise of civilian use of nuclear technology. It will also justify the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018 and subsequently re-impose sanctions on Tehran.
The JCPOA was signed by the United States, Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany in July 2015 to prevent Tehran from acquiring weapons-grade fissile material capability. Despite the US withdrawal, the remaining members of JCPOA have been struggling to protect the agreement. The increasing controversy over the Khojir blast will further weaken the international community’s trust over the agreement.
For two decades, the Khojir military complex has been under strict international scrutiny due to Iran’s struggle to keep its activities at Parchin opaque. One of the largest military explosive manufacturing sites, Parchin is closely linked with the Khojir missile production complex. According to the American sources, it was used to test nuclear weapons designs before 2003.
A massive explosion in 2014 also damaged the Parchin site, making analysts believe that Iran was conducting a secret experiment involving “high-explosive shaped charges with an inert core of depleted uranium” to test the characteristics of an implosion-type nuclear weapon.
The IAEA inspectors made unsuccessful attempts to conduct surprise visits of the place from 2006 to 2015. Iran did not permit them to investigate the site, even after the explosion in 2014, by masking it as a military base since such facilities are beyond the agency’s purview even when they are located on the territory of NPT members. The head of the IAEA was allowed to visit the empty Parchin facility in 2015, making the world body claim that all relevant equipment had been removed from the site.
Determining the exact nature of the June 26 explosion at the Khojir military complex seems difficult. Many analysts believe it was caused by an accident that occurred during the testing of ballistic missiles’ propellants. But the Iranian Defense Ministry gave a different version by officially announcing that a minor blast happened at a gas storage facility in a “public area” of the Parchin military complex, located outside Tehran.
Read more: Iran’s withdrawal from NPT
In summary, the controversy over the nature of the blast added a variable of complexity resulting in a debate over the likely fizzle out of an implosion-type nuclear weapon’s test at the Khojir military complex. Other than that, the progress in Iran’s nuclear and missile program and Tehran’s noncooperation with the IAEA will have a domino effect in the region that may unravel the nuclear nonproliferation regime in the Middle East.
Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is also an advisor on Non-Proliferation to SASSI, London, and a course coordinator at Foreign Services Academy for the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece first published in Arab News Pakistan Edition. It has been republished with permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.