Regardless of the results of the Vienna talks due to end Friday with or without a nuclear deal with Iran, the key person emerging is Massimo Aparo. He is the one who is to be on the watch to make sure that, in case of an agreement, Iran doesn’t violate it and, in the absence of a deal, to be able to tell the world that Iran is rushing to produce its first nuclear bomb.
In other words, Aparo is the gatekeeper and has to act as the international community’s bad cop in its dealing with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
Aparo, an Italian, heads an elite unit of the International Atomic Energy Agency known as Iran Task Force. It was created three years ago by IAEA’s director-general, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano.
The Iran Task Force is part of IAEA’s Department of Safeguards and Verification, which is in charge of making sure that all its state members properly use nuclear technology and knowhow for the declared civilian and peaceful purposes: scientific research, medicine, agriculture and industry – and not for illegally producing nuclear weapons.
The only country that is a member of IAEA and is under a unique and particular watch with a specially assigned unit to monitor it is Iran. And rightly so.
Iran has a bad and dubious track record of 12 years of cheating, cover- ups, lies and concealment of the true nature of its nuclear program with its 18 sites, including two uranium- enrichment facilities, reactors, laboratories, waste plants and more.
It established secret purchasing networks operating worldwide to illegally buy equipment and technology for its program by circumventing the sanctions.
It has worked indefatigably to advance its plans to be a nuclear- threshold country, and in doing so it has been in breach of many IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions.
Here enters Aparo. The mere fact that Amano ordered the establishment of the Iran Task Force is evidence of the huge mistrust that even a politically biased UN agency such as the IAEA and certainly the international community feel facing Iran and its leaders.
When the task force was established, its main focus was to collect data and analyze what was happening in the Parchin military base. According to information collected by Western and Israeli intelligence services and forwarded to the IAEA, the base served as a testing laboratory for “weaponization.”
There, Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers were conducting tests with highly sophisticated explosives and simulations to learn the process of a chain reaction to trigger a nuclear explosion.
When asked by Amano to allow Aparo and his task force to visit Parchin, Iran flatly rejected the request. Since then, according to images obtained from commercial satellites, Iran was involved in extensive cleanup works by removing huge chunks of soil, flooding some parts of the base with water and destroying several buildings – all to cover up what really happened in Parchin and to make sure that if task force inspectors were ever to visit the place and take samples, no traces of illegal nuclear activity would be found.
Aparo’s task force has 50 or so inspectors of different nationalities. They are nuclear engineers, physicists, chemists, computer and communication experts and intelligence data analysts.
Iran insisted that neither Americans nor Brits be included in the force. To the Iranian mind, they are spies. Actually, in the Iranian perception, the entire Iran Task Force is an extension of the CIA, Mossad, MI6, you name it. Eventually, Iran had to agree to the inclusion of one American member and one British member.
In the past, Iranian intelligence officers tried to recruit agents among the IAEA inspectors. As Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general of the IAEA and head of the Department of Safeguards and Verification told me, he himself faced many Iranian efforts to recruit him by offering him bribes and gifts.
It can be assumed that Iran will continue to disrupt, preempt and gain advance knowledge and understanding of task force plans.
Aparo’s problems are twofold. First are the rigid regulations of IAEA which require that a country be notified in advance – days, sometimes weeks in advance – about the inspection visits.
It gives the host country sufficient time to conceal and cover up whatever it doesn’t want the inspectors to see.
Iran has mastered the measures it has taken in its concealment and stalling tactics. Heinonen recalls that Iran even came up with the excuse “We lost the key” when it was requested to let him and his team into a particular site.
Second, IAEA monitoring equipment is old and outdated. It includes mechanical seals and cameras which are attached to the centrifuges enriching uranium and the cylinders and barrels where the uranium and other nuclear-related materials are stored.
To enhance the inspection, what Aparo needs are provisions that will permit him and his crew to have snap visits, on the spot, with advance notification of only a matter of hours. He also has to be allowed to use much more advanced monitoring equipment, including online cameras and seals, as well as lasers and sensors directly linked to IAEA control rooms in Vienna.
Aparo, in his late 50s, is an expert in nuclear machinery and instruments.
He graduated from Sapienza University of Rome, worked for an Italian agency advancing new technologies, and was employed by the European Space Agency. Around 20 years ago he was recruited by the IAEA.
I was told by former IAEA inspectors that he is a serious and solid nuclear expert but lacks leadership qualities.
Leadership skills are needed not only to lead a complex international force with members of different backgrounds and perhaps different agendas but to be tough and determined in dealing with his Iranian counterparts and hosts, who will do everything possible to sabotage his mission by endlessly arguing about every minor step and detail.
But above all, Aparo – with or without a deal, even with new monitoring equipment and intrusive inspections – will have to rely at the end on outside assistance.
As in the past, the Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence – along with the CIA, MI6, German BND, French intelligence and others – will have to enhance their efforts and improve intelligence collection on Iran’s nuclear program in order to detect ahead of time whether the Islamic Republic is breaking out to the bomb.