DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran has begun construction of a site at its underground nuclear facility in Fordo amid tensions with the US over its nuclear program, satellite photos obtained Friday by The Associated Press show.
Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, the discovery of which by the West came in 2009 in an earlier round of shortsightedness before world powers closed the nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015.
While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo is likely to raise new concerns in the waning days of the Trump administration before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Iran is already building its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious July explosion there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.
“Any change to this site will be watched carefully as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies 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, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The IAEA has so far not made public whether Iran has notified it of a construction at Fordo.
Construction of the Fordo site started at the end of September. Satellite images obtained by the AP from Maxar Technologies show the construction taking place in a northwest corner of the site, near the holy Shia city of Qom, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran.
A satellite photo from December 11 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 is northwest of Fordo’s underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential air raids. The site is located near other support and research and development buildings at Fordo.
One such building is Iran’s National Vacuum Technology Center. Vacuum technology is a critical part of Iran’s uranium gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.
A Twitter account called Observer IL earlier this week published an image of Fordo with the construction, citing Korea Aerospace Research Institute in South Korea.
The AP later reached out to the Twitter user, who identified himself as a retired Israeli Defense Forces soldier with a civil engineering background. He asked if his name would not be published on previous threats he received online. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute acknowledged having taken the satellite photo.
Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal in 2018, in which Tehran had agreed to limit uranium enrichment in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Trump mentioned Iran’s ballistic missile program, regional policy and other issues in the withdrawal from the deal, though the deal focused entirely on Tehran’s nuclear program.
As the US stepped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly left the boundaries of the deal as a series of escalating incidents pushed the two countries on the brink of war at the beginning of the year.. Tensions remain high.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead turn it into a “nuclear, physical and technological hub”.
“This location was a major bottleneck in the negotiations leading to the nuclear deal with Iran,” said Lewis. “The US insisted Iran shut it down, while Iran’s supreme leader said it was a red line to keep it.”
Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has resumed enrichment there.
Shielded by the mountains, the facility is also surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It’s about the size of a soccer field, big enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to make U.S. officials suspect it had military purpose when they made the site public in 2009.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the agreement’s limit of 3.67%. The Iranian parliament has passed a bill requiring Tehran to enrich up to 20%, a short technical step away from 90% weapon quality levels. The bill would also throw out IAEA inspectors.
Experts say Iran has now stockpiled enough low-enriched uranium for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chooses to pursue them. Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful.
While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill, the country’s Guardian Council later amended and approved it. The bill aims to pressure European countries to provide relief from crippling US sanctions.
Meanwhile, an Iranian scientist who drafted his military nuclear program two decades ago was recently killed in a shooting outside Tehran.. Iran has blamed Israel, long suspected of murdering Iranian nuclear scientists over the past decade, for the attack. Israel has not commented on the attack.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.