Iran is building something new at an underground nuclear site

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Iran began building a site at its underground nuclear facility in Fordow amid tensions with the United States over its nuclear program, according to satellite images obtained by the Associated Press on Friday. Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordow, which the West discovered in 2009 in a previous round of risky politics before world powers finalized the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo will likely spark new anxiety in the final days of the Trump administration before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Iran is already building at the Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there, which Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

“Any changes to this site will be carefully monitored as evidence of the direction in which the Iranian nuclear program is moving,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies who studies Iran. . .

The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency has not publicly disclosed whether Iran has informed it of any construction at Fordow.

“As you know, the International Atomic Energy Agency has inspectors on the ground in Iran, and there is an unprecedented inspection mechanism that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As such, none of the nuclear activities of Iran has been classified. “

“We have always emphasized that our current activities that are in line with the JCPOA can be reversed immediately and will be reversed immediately once the other parties, including the United States, commit to fully comply with what was agreed, especially as it relates to lifting of sanctions, “Miriosfi said. .

About a year ago, Iran said it had injected uranium gas into centrifuges at the Fordow underground complex, in what was then its most important step away from the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal in response to President Trump’s withdrawal.

New construction began at the Fordo site in late September. Satellite images obtained by The Associated Press from Maxar Technologies show construction work underway in the northwest corner of the site, near the Shiite holy city of Qom, about 55 miles southwest of Tehran.

A satellite image taken on December 11 shows what appears to be a newly excavated base of a building with dozens of columns. These columns can be used in construction to support buildings in earthquake areas.

The construction site is located northwest of the Fordow underground facility, which was built deep in a mountain to protect it from possible air raids. The site is located near other Fordo R&D support buildings.

Among these buildings is the Iranian National Center for Vacuum Technology. Vacuum technology is a critical component of Iran’s uranium gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.

Countless challenges await Biden in the Middle East
In 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to limit uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump cited Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies, and other issues related to withdrawing from the deal, though the deal focused entirely on Tehran’s nuclear program.

When the United States stepped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the agreement’s borders, as a series of escalating incidents brought the two countries to the brink of war earlier in the year. Tensions remain high today.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordow and turn it into a “nuclear, physical and technological center.”

“This site was a major sticking point in the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal,” Lewis said. The United States insisted that Iran shut it down, while Iran’s supreme leader said keeping it was a red line.

Since the deal collapsed, Iran has resumed enrichment there, which was confirmed by the gas injection announced a year ago.

The facility protected by the mountains was surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and robust enough to make US officials suspect it served a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

So far, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the agreement’s limit of 3.67%. Iran’s parliament passed a bill requiring Tehran to enrich itself by up to 20%, in a short technical step away from arms manufacturing levels of 90%. The bill would also remove inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium reserves from at least two nuclear weapons should it decide to pursue them. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful.

The bill seeks to pressure European nations to provide relief from crippling U.S. sanctions. Along with the growing work on the nuclear sites, it is also likely that he intends to give Iran more leverage with the incoming Biden administration if negotiations are resumed, be they bilateral or a resumption of international talks that led to the deal. 2015.

Biden has said that he will offer Tehran a “credible path back to diplomacy,” but stressed that Iran must once again comply with the terms of the nuclear deal. If he does, his administration would also “re-sign the agreement.”

Iran’s president has promised a “swift” return to adherence to the terms of the nuclear deal if Biden withdraws the sanctions that his predecessor imposed against his country over the past two years.

The president-elect has consistently argued that the 2015 agreement signed by his previous boss, former President Barack Obama, “prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

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