TEHRAN, Iran - Iran may move its uranium enrichment facilities to safer locations if this becomes necessary, a senior military commander said Wednesday, reflecting Iran's worries about a possible military strike against the sites at the center of Tehran's standoff with the West.
Both the U.S. and Israel have not ruled out a military option against Iran's controversial nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making atomic weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying the program is geared toward generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes needed to treat cancer patients.
Gholam Reza Jalali, who commands an anti-sabotage unit in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, said the vulnerability of Iran's nuclear facilities from a possible strike is "already minimal" but that the move still may go through for their better protection.
"If conditions require, we will move (our) uranium enrichment facilities to safer locations," Jalali was quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency as saying.
Iran's main uranium enrichment site in Natanz in central Iran is built partly underground while the long-secret Fordo facility was built deep inside a mountain as a precaution from aerial attacks. Jalili said the existing infrastructure has already been "a kind of deterrent" against attacks.
"Our vulnerability in the nuclear field is minimal," Jalali claimed. "If Americans and Israelis were able to attack and harm our nuclear facilities, they would have definitely done so by now."
CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, who has covered Iran for years, says the suggestion that relocating facilities as vast and complex as Natanz might help shield them from attack is somewhat dubious, as any such operation would take a very long time to organize and carryout, and would certainly be closely watched by U.S. spy satellites.
Jalali's unit was set up on an order from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is tasked with reducing the possibility and minimizing damage from potential military action against Iran.
Natanz is of key concern since it is the country's main enrichment site and the location of the bulk of its centrifuges machines that are used for enriching uranium in a technology that can produce either fuel for power plants or fissile material for a nuclear warhead.
Natanz computers have been the target of a cyber attack in 2009 and experts there have had to battle a powerful computer worm known as Stuxnet, which has the ability to send centrifuges spinning out of control.
Iran acknowledged Stuxnet affected a limited number of centrifuges at Natanz but said its scientists discovered and neutralized the malware before it could cause serious damage.
Jalali did not elaborate on possible sites for the relocation of nuclear facilities but such an effort would be hugely complicated and would require places able to store the technology safely.
In August, Iran announced it was moving some of its centrifuges to Fordo, just north of the holy city of Qom, because that site offered better protection from possible air strikes but did not later elaborate on the move or say whether the centrifuges came from Natanz.