According to satellite photos obtained by the Associated Press on Friday, Iran has begun construction of the underground nuclear facility at Fordo at the time of tension with the United States over its nuclear energy program.
Iran has not yet publicly acknowledged any new buildings in Fordo. The Western discovery in 2009 was an earlier fringe policy before the world powers reached the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Although the purpose of the construction is still unclear, any work at Fordo may raise new concerns in the final days of the Trump administration before the president-elect Biden is sworn in. After a mysterious explosion in July (Iran calls Tehran a sabotage activity), Iran has already built at its Natanz nuclear facility.
“Any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at 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, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The IAEA as of yet has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.
The construction of the Fordo website began in late September. Satellite images obtained by the Associated Press from Maxar Technologies show that the project is in the northwest corner of the site, near the Shiite holy city of Qom, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran.
Satellite photos from December 11 show that this appears to be the excavation foundation of a building with dozens of pillars. Such pillars can be used in buildings to support buildings in seismic zones.
The construction site is located in the northwest of the Fordo underground facility, built deep in a mountain to protect it from potential air strikes. The location is close to Fordo’s other support and R&D buildings.
Among these buildings is the Iranian National Vacuum Technology Center. Vacuum technology is a key component of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuge for enriching uranium.
Earlier this week, a Twitter account called Observer IL posted a Fordo picture that showed the structure and cited the structure from the Korean Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in South Korea.
The Associated Press then reached a Twitter user who claimed to be a retired IDF soldier with a background in civil engineering. He asked not to disclose his name because of the threats he received online. Korea Aerospace Research Institute admitted to taking satellite photos.
Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump cited Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies and other issues in withdrawing from the accord, though the deal focused entirely on Tehran’s atomic program.
When the United States strengthened sanctions, Iran gradually publicly announced that it would abandon the restrictions on the transaction, because a series of escalating events put the two countries on the brink of war at the beginning of this year. Tensions remain high.
According to the 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium in Fordo and make it a “nuclear, physical and technological center.”
“This location was a major sticking point in negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal,” Lewis said. “The U.S. insisted Iran close it while Iran’s supreme leader said keeping it was a red line.”
Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment there.
Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is 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 and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Iran’s parliament has passed a bill that requires Tehran to enrich up to 20%, a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. The bill also would throw out IAEA inspectors.
Experts say that if Iran chooses to pursue it, then Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stocks to buy at least two nuclear weapons. Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful.
When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill, the country’s guardianship board later adjusted and approved it. The bill aims to put pressure on European countries to free them from severe US sanctions.
Meanwhile, an Iranian scientist who created its military nuclear program two decades ago recently was killed in a shooting outside of Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel, which has long been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade, for the attack. Israel has not commented on the attack.