Update: Satellite photos appear to show damage after "explosion" at suspected Iranian nuclear facility

If you read this post on Tuesday, you’ll want to read this one too. Did something happen a few days ago at the Parchin military base, where Iran has been accused of testing components for atomic bombs? Iranian state media reported that there was a fire at an “explosives producing facility” east of Tehran that killed two people; an Iranian dissident group countered that it wasn’t just any facility that had burned, it was an area on the Parchin base. And it wasn’t just a fire that had occurred, it was a gigantic explosion that shattered windows miles away. What’s the truth?

A site called Israel Defense obtained the most recent commercial satellite photos of Parchin and concluded, yep, something’s up. Quote:

Satellite images of the Parchin area, to the east of Tehran, prove: the explosion reported by the Iranian media had, indeed, occurred inside the military compound in Parchin, where, according to western intelligence agencies, trials are being conducted on nuclear missile fuzes. Satellite images obtained by Israel Defense and analyzed by specialist Ronen Solomon clearly show damage consistent with an attack against bunkers in a central locality within the military research complex at the Parchin military compound.

The locality in question is situated at the center of the compound, adjacent to another installation where, according to intelligence sources, the trials being conducted involve controlled detonation of fuzes intended to serve as triggers for nuclear devices. The locality consists of a sizable testing center and what appears to be an area with bunker-shaped structures.

I don’t want to reproduce the photos here since it’s their scoop, so follow the link and click the image at Israel Defense to see a large before-and-after comparison. There are indeed some buildings missing as well as signs of scorching in another area. There doesn’t seem to be much debris, which you would think would be clearly visible in the footprint of the buildings that have vanished, but there do appear to be large trucks on the scene. Maybe Iran ordered a hurried clean-up between the evening of October 5th, when the fire/explosion happened, and October 7th, when the latest satellite images were taken. Could the rubble from multiple buildings be cleared away that quickly?

Another western defense shop, the Institute for Science and International Security (a.k.a., er, ISIS), had the same idea as Israel Defense and looked at the latest satellite photos too. Their analysis is in PDF form but I highly recommend having a look, as the photos are not only helpfully marked but they include a wide shot of most of the base so that you can see where the attack site is vis-a-vis other key locations. Takeaway:

Several signatures that coincide with those expected from an explosion site are visible here. Two buildings that were present in August 2014 are no longer there, while a third building appears to be severely damaged. In total at least six buildings appear damaged or destroyed. Several trucks are present at the site. The shape and size of these trucks is consistent with those of either fire or debris removal trucks. The irregular line and color of the vegetation seems to indicate that some unexpected activity took place (possibly a fire, explosion, scattering of debris etc.). Finally, grey debris is visible at the center of the potential explosion area and is also scattered into the surrouding vegetation.

However, it is important to highlight that a section of the Parchin military complex was not analyzed by ISIS because it was missing from the most recent satellite imagery purchased from Airbus for unexplained reasons. This site is believed to house many buildings possibly dedicated to munition manufacturing, location where an explosion could potentially take place. Therefore, ISIS will be waiting for additional satellite imagery before reaching a final conclusion on the location of the blast.

In other words, they think they’ve found evidence of where a fire/explosion happened recently at Parchin, but since the most recent satellite photos don’t show the entire base, they can’t say if other parts of the base might have been damaged too. All of which seems straightforward — until you look at the first photo (Figure 1) in the ISIS PDF. It turns out the damaged site isn’t located in the parts of the base that have drawn the west’s nuclear suspicions. If this was an attack, in other words, why attack this location instead of the munitions areas or the suspected atomic-component testing areas? Two obvious possibilities. One: The attacker had reason to believe from its own intelligence that something important was going on in the targeted area, despite the fact that it hasn’t raised western suspicions before. Or two: There was no attacker and this really was some sort of accidental fire/explosion in a relatively innocuous part of Parchin.

I’ll leave you with one more thought, in case you’re inclined towards theory two. Judging by the damage, whatever happened doesn’t seem enormous enough to have shattered windows miles away. But if you look at the “after” photo of the damaged area in ISIS’s PDF, you’ll see that buildings damaged by the mystery event aren’t all adjacent to each other. There are some scorched buildings in the upper left corner of the photo, then a bunch of untouched buildings in the center, and then lots of damage on the right. How would a fire or accidental explosion skip over the buildings in the center? Seems like an attack that specifically targeted the damaged buildings is more likely.