An Iranian nuclear facility is so deep underground that US airstrikes may not be able to reach it, according to experts and satellite images from the news agency PA.
The photos and videos of Planet Labs PBC show that Iran has been building tunnels in the mountain near the nuclear site of natanzwhich has been the target of repeated sabotage attacks amid Tehran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
With Iran now producing uranium near weapons-grade levels after the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers, the facility complicates Western efforts to stop Tehran to potentially develop an atomic bomb, as diplomacy over its nuclear program remains at a standstill.
The completion of such a facility “would be a nightmare scenario that could trigger a new escalation spiral,” warned Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “Given how close Iran is to having a bomb, it has very little scope to escalate its program without crossing US and Israeli red lines. So at this point, any further escalation increases the risk of conflict.”
Construction at the Natanz site comes five years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal. Trump argued that the agreement did not address Tehran’s ballistic missile program, nor its support for militias in the Middle East.
But what he did do was strictly limit uranium enrichment from Iran at 3.67% purity, powerful enough only to power civilian power plants, and keep its reserve to only about 300 kilograms (660 pounds).
Since the end of the nuclear deal, Iran has said it is enriching uranium up to 60%, although inspectors recently found the country had produced uranium particles that are 83.7% pure. That is only a short step away from reaching the threshold of 90% weapons-grade uranium.
In February, international inspectors estimated that Iran’s reserve was more than 10 times what it was under the Obama-era deala, with enough enriched uranium to allow Tehran to make “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 that diplomacy is the best way to achieve that goal.but the president has also made it clear that we have not ruled out any options,” the White House said in a statement to PA.
The Islamic Republic denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons, although Tehran officials now speak openly of its ability to develop one.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations said that “Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities are transparent and under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.” However, Iran has limited access to international inspectors for years.
Iran says the new construction will replace an aboveground centrifuge manufacturing center in Natanz that was hit by an explosion and fire in July 2020. Tehran blamed the incident on Israel, long suspected of leading sabotage campaigns against his program.
Tehran has not acknowledged any other plans for the facility, although it would have to declare the site to the IAEA if it plans to feed uranium into it.
The new project is being built next to Natanz, about 225 kilometers (140 miles) south of Tehran. Natanz has been a cause 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 highlands.
Satellite photos taken in April by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by PA show that Iran is digging into the Kūh-e Kolang Gaz Lā mountain, or “Piqueta Peak Mountain”, which is just beyond the southern fence of Natanz.
A different set of images analyzed by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reveals that four inlets have been dug into the side of the mountain, two to the east and two to the west. Each measures 6 meters (20 feet) wide and 8 meters (26 feet) tall.
The scope of work can be measured in large mounds of land, two to the west and one to the east. Based on the size of the debris and other satellite data, experts at the center told PA 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, provided exclusively to PAis the first to estimate the depth of the tunnel system based on satellite imagery.
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 be even deeper.
Experts say the size of the construction project indicates that Iran likely could use underground facility to enrich uranium, not just to build centrifuges. Arranged in grand cascades of dozens of machines, those tube-shaped centrifuges rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it. With additional waterfalls in operation, Iran could rapidly enrich uranium under the protection of the mountain.
“Therefore, the depth of the facility is concerning because it would be much more difficult to destroy with conventional weapons, such as a typical bunker-piercing bomb,” said Steven De La Fuente, a research associate at the center who led the analysis of the work at the facility. tunnels.
The new Natanz facility is likely to be even deeper underground than Iran’s Fordo facility, another enrichment site that was exposed in 2009 by US and other leaders. That facility raised fears in the West that Iran was strengthening its program against air strikes.
These underground facilities led the United States to create the GBU-57 bomb, which can pass through at least 200 feet (60 meters) of ground before detonating, according to the US military. US officials have reportedly discussed using two of these bombs in succession to ensure they destroy a site. It is unclear whether such an attack would damage a facility as deep as the one at Natanz.
With these bombs potentially ruled out, the United States and its allies have fewer options to attack the site. If diplomacy fails, sabotage attacks may resume.
Natanz has already been the target of the Stuxnet virus, which is believed to have been created by Israel and the United States, and which destroyed Iranian centrifuges. Israel is also believed to have killed scientists involved in the program, attacked facilities with bomb-carrying drones and carried out other attacks. The Israeli government declined to comment.
Experts say such disruptive actions could bring Tehran even closer to the bomb and put its program even deeper into the mountains, where airstrikes, sabotage and spies might not be able to reach it.
“Sabotage may reverse Iran’s nuclear program in the short term, but it is not a viable long-term strategy to ward off a nuclear-armed Iran.said Davenport, the nonproliferation expert. “Driving Iran’s nuclear program further underground increases the risk of proliferation.”
(With information from AP)
International observers have detected that the Iranian regime is close to having enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
The UN has warned that Iran has enough highly enriched uranium to build “various” nuclear weapons.