Iran has begun construction on a site at its Fordo underground nuclear facility amid tensions with the U.S. over their atomic program satellite images obtained Friday by The Associated Press show.
Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new build at Fordo, which was discovered by the West in 2009 in an earlier round of brinkmanship before world powers struck a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
While the purpose of the building is not clear, any work Fordo will likely raise new concerns in the weak days of the Trump administration before President Joe Biden is elected. Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.
“Any changes to this site will be carefully watched as an indication of where Iran’s nuclear program is being directed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. Iran study.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the investigators in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Construction work on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained from Maxar Technologies by the AP show the construction taking place at the northwest corner of the site, near the Shiite holy city in Qom about 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran.
December. Eleven satellite images show what it looks like a dug foundation for a building with twelve columns. Such columns can be used in construction to support buildings in earthquake zones.
The construction site is northwest of a Fordo underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential air strikes. The site is close to Fordo’s other support and research and development properties.
These buildings include the Ioran National Vacuum Technology Center. Vacuum technology is an important part of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.
A Twitter account called Observer IL earlier this week released an image of Fordo showing the build, announcing that it came from the South Korean Aerospace Research Institute.
The AP later reached out to the Twitter user, who identified himself as an Israeli Defense Forces soldier with a civil engineering background. He asked that his name not be made public about the threats he had previously received online. The aerospace research was recognized by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
Trump in 2018 withdrew the U.S. unilaterally from the Iran nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit uranium enrichment in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Trump cited Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies and other issues in withdrawing from the treaty, although the agreement focused entirely on Tehran’s atomic program.
When the U.S. lifted sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly suspended the borders of the treaty as a series of escalating events pushed the two countries on the brink of war at the beginning of the year. The tension is still high.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to halt Fordo’s uranium enrichment and instead make it a “nuclear, physics and technology center.”
“This location was a key point in talks that led to Iran’s nuclear deal,” Lewis said. “The U.S. urged Iran to shut down while Iran’s chief executive said it was a red line. “
Since the collapse of the agreement, Iran has resumed wealth there.
Surrounded by the mountains, the facility is also surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to hold 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hard enough to make U.S. officials suspect it had a military purpose when they unveiled the site in public in 2009. .
To date, Iran is enriching uranium by up to 4.5%, going against the contract limit of 3.67%. Iran’s parliament has passed a bill that calls for Tehran to enrich up to 20%, a short technical step away from 90% arms rate levels. The bill would also throw out IAEA auditors.
Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium accumulated for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chooses to pursue them. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful.
While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill, the country’s Council of Protectors signed and accepted it. The bill seeks to put pressure on European countries to seek relief from U.S. sanctions.
Meanwhile, an Iranian scientist who invented his nuclear weapons program two decades ago was killed in a fire outside Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel, which has long been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the past decade, for the attack. Israel has not commented.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.