Iran builds underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

Satellite images at Iranian nuclear site reveal new building work has been going on since September at underground plant

  • Aerial images show work taking place at the Fordo underground nuclear facility 
  • Iran has not acknowledged any work at the site, discovered by the West in 2009
  • Tehran is already carrying out building at another prominent nuclear site, Natanz

Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its atomic programme, new satellite photos show.

The work has been going on since September but Tehran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, which was discovered by the West in 2009 amid an earlier round of brinkmanship over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo is likely to trigger new concern in the waning days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of Joe Biden, who wants to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Iran is already building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

This December 11 satellite image shows construction work at the Fordo nuclear facility, where Iran has resumed uranium enrichment since the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal

Another satellite image taken on November 4 shows how the Fordo complex is shielded by a mountain, possibly to protect it from potential airstrikes

The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.

‘Any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed,’ said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. 

Construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images show the work taking place at a north-west corner of the site, near the holy city of Qom. 

A December 11 satellite photo shows what appears to be a dug foundation for a building with dozens of pillars. Such pillars can be used in construction to support buildings in earthquake zones.

The construction site sits northwest of Fordo’s underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential airstrikes. 

The site is near other support and research-and-development buildings at Fordo, and is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. 

Among those buildings is Iran’s National Vacuum Technology Centre. Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran’s enrichment centrifuges. 

A uranium shipment on its way to Fordo last year, as Iran ramps up its nuclear activities in defiance of the struggling 2015 deal 

Although large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, the site is small and fortified enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed it in 2009.  

Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

When the US ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits as a series of escalating incidents pushed the two rivals to the brink of war.  

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead make it ‘a nuclear, physics and technology centre’.

Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment there. It is now enriching uranium up to 4.5 per cent, violating the accord’s limit of 3.67 per cent.  

Iran’s parliament has passed a bill that requires Tehran to enrich up to 20 per cent, a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent.  

Biden, who was vice president when the deal was negotiated under Barack Obama’s presidency, has promised to re-enter the pact when he takes office. 

Tehran says it could quickly reverse its steps to breach the deal if Washington first lifts its sanctions. 

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