Iran building new centrifuge production site, state TV says

Tehran’s nuclear chief says work has already begun on facility to replace Natanz, damaged in mysterious July 2 explosion

The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Iran said Tuesday it is building a sophisticated new building near its underground Natanz nuclear site, state TV reported.

The report quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the country’s nuclear agency, as saying the new structure is being built in the wake of a July explosion that damaged a building that housed centrifuge machines.

“Regarding the evil action and sabotage that was carried out, it has been decided to establish a more modern, wider and more comprehensive hall to be constructed in the heart of the mountains around Natanz,” Salehi was quoted as saying.

Natanz hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium.

Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Ali Akbar Salehi at a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, November 26, 2018. (Francisco Seco/AP)

Salehi said construction of the new building “has already begun.”

On Sunday, Iran said it had found those who were involved in the alleged sabotage, but said details will be released later.

The July 2 explosion, which foreign media reports have attributed to Israel or the US, damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said this week that it did not interrupt operations but has vowed that Iran would respond if international actors were found to be behind the explosion.

In July Iranian news website “Didban Iran” (“Iran Watch”), tied to the country’s intelligence ministry, reported the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had concluded that the instigator of the blast was Ershad Karimi, a contractor at the site who owns a company, MEHR, that supplies precision measuring equipment.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

According to a New York Times report, the blast was most likely the result of a bomb planted at the facility, potentially at a strategic gas line. The report did not rule out the possibility that a cyberattack was used to cause a malfunction that led to the explosion.

The explosion was one of a series of mysterious blasts at Iranian strategic sites around the same time, which were largely attributed to either Washington, Jerusalem, or both.

Reports last month indicated Iran has been moving to boost uranium enrichment at Natanz. A document from the International Atomic Energy Agency cited by the Bloomberg news agency said new advanced centrifuges were being moved from a pilot facility to a new area of the nuclear facility.

The move appeared to violate the 2015 nuclear agreement Iran signed with world powers, and may show that the alleged sabotage at the plant did not significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program. It also suggested the damage to Natanz was not as severe as first believed.

Under the nuclear accord, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran committed to limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

This photo released July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

But the JCPOA has been on life support since the US withdrew from it and reimposed unilateral sanctions in 2018.

Iran has since taken small but escalatory steps away from compliance with the agreement, as it presses for the sanctions relief it was promised. Some of those steps are believed to have been at the Natanz nuclear site.

The US is currently engaged in a likely-doomed bid to renew international sanctions against Iran at the UN, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the accord.

The IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5% purity — above the terms of the nuclear deal but below weapons-grade levels of 90%. Workers there also have conducted tests on advanced centrifuges, according to the IAEA.

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