DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran has begun construction of a site at its underground nuclear facility in a tense atmosphere with the US over its nuclear program, satellite photos obtained Friday by The Associated Press show.
Iran has not publicly accepted any new construction at Fordo, which was discovered by the West in 2009, before world powers attacked the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
Although the purpose of the building is unclear, any work on the possibility of Fordo in the days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of the presidential election would give rise to new concerns. Already, Iran is building its NatGen nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.
“Any changes to this site will be carefully watched as a sign of Iran being the head of its nuclear program,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nonprofit studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies studying Iran.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The IAEA has not yet publicly disclosed if Iran reported any construction at Fordo.
Construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained by AP from Maxar Technologies show construction taking place in the northwest corner of the site, near the sacred Shia city, about 90 kilometers (55 mi) southwest of Tehran.
The satellite photo of 11 December shows what appears to be a dug foundation for a building with dozens of pillars. Such pillars can be constructed to support buildings in earthquake areas.
The construction site sits to the northwest of Fordo’s underground facility, built inside a mountain to protect it from possible airstrikes. The site is near other support and research and development buildings in Fordo.
Among those buildings is Iran’s National Vacuum Technology Center. The vacuum technique is an important component of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuge, which enriches uranium.
A Twitter account called Observer IL earlier this week Published an image of Fordo showing the construction, Citing it coming from the Korea Aerospace Research Institute of South Korea.
The AP later reached out to a Twitter user, who identified himself as a retired Israeli Defense Forces soldier with a civil engineering background. He asked that his name not be published in previous threats received online. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute admitted to taking photographs of the satellite.
In 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to limit its 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 agreement, although the deal focused solely on Tehran’s nuclear program.
When the US ended the sanctions, Iran slowly and publicly abandoned the deal limits as escalating events pushed the two countries to the brink of war at the beginning of the year.. Stress is still high.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to prevent Fordo from enriching uranium and instead created a “Center for Nuclear, Physics and Technology”.
“This location was a major point in negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal,” Lewis said. “The US insisted on Iran, while Iran’s supreme leader said it was a red line.”
Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has resumed prosperity there.
Shielded by the mountains, the facility is also ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small enough to lead the hardened US officials to suspect it was a military objective when they publicly siteed in 2009 Exposed.
At this time, Iran is enriching uranium by 4.5%, violating the 3.67% limit. Iran’s parliament has passed a bill requiring Tehran to prosper by 20%, A small technical step from the weapon-grade level of 90%. The bill also would throw out IAEA inspectors.
Experts say Iran has a sufficient amount of uranium reserves for at least two nuclear weapons if it chooses to pursue them. Iran has long kept its nuclear program peaceful.
While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill, it was later ratified by the country’s Guardian Council. The bill seeks to pressure European countries to relieve US sanctions.
Meanwhile, Iranian scientists who made their military nuclear program two decades ago were recently killed in a shooting outside Tehran.. Iran has blamed Israel, which has long been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists, for the past decade. Israel has not commented on the attack.
Follow John Gambrell on Twitter www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.