Iran nuclear site defies the West as talks on reviving atomic deal stall

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Near a peak in the Zagros Mountains in central Iran, workers are constructing a nuclear facility so deep in the ground that it is likely to exceed the range of a US last-ditch weapon designed to destroy such sites , according to experts and satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press.

Planet Labs PBC photos and videos show Iran tunneling into the mountain near the Natanz nuclear site, which has come under repeated sabotage attacks amid Tehran’s standoff with the West over his atomic program.

With Iran now producing uranium close to weapons-grade levels after its nuclear deal collapsed with world powers, the facility complicates Western efforts to stop Tehran from potentially developing an atomic bomb as the diplomacy over its nuclear program remains at a standstill.

Completing such a facility “would be a nightmare scenario that risks triggering a new spiral of escalation,” warned Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “Given Iran’s proximity to a bomb, it has very little room to accelerate its program without tripping American and Israeli red lines. So at this stage, any further escalation increases the risk of conflict.

Construction at the Natanz site comes five years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the nuclear deal. Trump argued that the deal did not cover Tehran’s ballistic missile program or its support for militias throughout the Middle East.

But what it has done is strictly limit Iran’s uranium enrichment to 3.67% purity, potent enough only to power civilian power plants, and keep its stockpile at just 300. kilograms (660 pounds).

Since the end of the nuclear deal, Iran has said it has been enriching uranium up to 60%, although inspectors recently found the country had produced 83.7 pure uranium particles. %. It is only a short step to reach the threshold of 90% weapons-grade uranium.

In February, international inspectors estimated that Iran’s stockpile was more than 10 times larger than it was under the Obama-era deal, with enough enriched uranium to allow Tehran to manufacture “several “nuclear bombs, according to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

President Joe Biden and the Prime Minister of Israel have said they will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon. “We believe diplomacy is the best way to achieve this goal, but the president has also been clear that we have not taken any options off the table,” the White House said in a statement to the PA.

The Islamic Republic denies it is researching nuclear weapons, although Tehran officials are now openly discussing their ability to research one.

Iran’s mission to the United Nations, in response to questions from the AP about the build, said “Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities are transparent and under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.” However, Iran has restricted access for international inspectors for years.

Iran says the new construction will replace an above-ground centrifuge manufacturing center in Natanz hit by an explosion and fire in July 2020. Tehran has blamed the incident on Israel, long suspected of waging sabotage campaigns against its program .

Tehran has not acknowledged any other plans for the facility, although it would have to declare the site to the IAEA if it planned to introduce uranium there. The Vienna-based IAEA did not respond to questions about the new underground facility.

The new project is being built next to Natanz, about 225 kilometers (140 miles) south of Tehran. Natanz has been a matter of international concern since its existence became known two decades ago.

Protected by anti-aircraft batteries, fences and Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, the facility spans 2.7 square kilometers (1 square mile) in the country’s arid central plateau.

Satellite photos taken in April by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by the AP show Iran burrowing into the Kūh-e Kolang Gaz Lā, or “Pickaxe Mountain,” which lies just beyond the southern fence by Nathanz.

A different set of images analyzed by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reveals that four entrances have been carved into the side of the mountain, two to the east and two to the west. Each is 6 meters (20 feet) wide and 8 meters (26 feet) high.

The extent of the work can be measured in large mounds of earth, two to the west and one to the east. Based on the size of the spoil piles and other satellite data, experts at the center told AP that Iran is likely building a facility at a depth of between 80 meters (260 feet) and 100 meters (328 feet). The center’s analysis, which it provided exclusively to AP, is the first to estimate the depth of the tunnel system based on satellite images.

The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nonprofit that has long focused on Iran’s nuclear program, suggested last year that the tunnels could go even further.

Experts say the size of the construction project indicates that Iran could also use the underground facility to enrich uranium – not just to build centrifuges. These tube-shaped centrifuges, arranged in large cascades of dozens of machines, rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it. Additional rotating cascades would allow Iran to rapidly enrich uranium under the protection of the mountain.

“So the depth of the installation is a concern because it would be much more difficult for us. It would be much more difficult to destroy using conventional weapons, like a typical bunker buster,” said Steven De La Fuente, a researcher associated with the center who led the analysis of the tunnel works.

The new Natanz facility is likely to be even deeper underground than Iran’s Fordo facility, another enrichment site that was discovered in 2009 by the United States and other world leaders. This facility has raised fears in the West that Iran will toughen up its airstrike program.

These underground facilities led the United States to create the GBU-57 bomb, which can plow at least 60 meters (200 feet) of earth before exploding, according to the US military. US officials reportedly discussed using two of these bombs in succession to ensure a site was destroyed. It’s not clear that such a punch would damage a setup as deep as Natanz’s.

With such potentially irrelevant bombs, the United States and its allies find themselves with fewer options to target the site. If diplomacy fails, sabotage attacks can resume.

Already, Natanz has been targeted by the Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, which has destroyed Iranian centrifuges. Israel also reportedly killed scientists involved in the program, hit facilities with bomb-carrying drones and launched other attacks. The Israeli government declined to comment.

Experts say such disruptive actions could push Tehran even closer to the bomb — and drive its program even deeper into the mountain where airstrikes, other sabotage and spies might not be able to reach it. .

“Sabotage may roll back Iran’s nuclear program in the short term, but it’s not a viable long-term strategy to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran,” said Davenport, the non-commissioned expert. proliferation. “Putting Iran’s nuclear program further underground increases the risk of proliferation.”


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