Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the U.S. over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday by The Associated Press show.
While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo likely will trigger new concern in the waning days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.
"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.
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 not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.
"As you know, the IAEA has inspectors on the ground in Iran, and there is an unprecedented 24/7 inspection mechanism. As such, none of Iran's nuclear activities are secret," Iran's U.N. spokesman Alireza Miryousefi told CBS News' Pamela Falk.
"We have always maintained that our current activities which are in line with JCPOA can and will be immediately reversed once the other parties, including the U.S., come into full compliance with what was agreed upon, in particular on removing sanctions," Miryousefi said.
About a year ago, Iran said it had
The new construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained from Maxar Technologies by the AP show the construction taking place at a northwest corner of the site, near the holy Shiite city of Qom some 55 miles southwest of Tehran.
A December 11 satellite photo shows what appears to be a newly 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 sits northwest of Fordo's underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential airstrikes. The site is near other support and research-and-development buildings at Fordo.
Among those buildings is Iran's National Vacuum Technology Center. Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran's uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.
In 2018 Mr. Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Mr. 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 U.S. ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal's limits as a series of escalating incidents pushed the two countries to the brink of war at the beginning of the year. Tensions remain high today.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead make it "a nuclear, physics and technology 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, as confirmed by the injection of gas announced a year ago.
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 Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
The bill seeks to pressure European nations to provide relief from. Along with the mounting work at nuclear sites, it is also likely intended to give Iran more leverage with the incoming Biden administration if and when negotiations – be they bilateral or a resumption of the international talks that led to the 2015 deal – resume.
Mr. Biden has said he'll offer Tehran a "credible path back to diplomacy," but stressed that Iran must return to compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal. If it does, his administration would "re-enter the agreement," too.
Iran's president has vowed a "quick" return to adherence of the nuclear deal's terms if Mr. Biden drops the sanctions his predecessor levied against his country over the last two years.
The president-elect has consistently argued that the 2015 accord signed by his previous boss, former President Barack Obama, "blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."