Iran is constructing a vast new network of tunnels at its Natanz nuclear site that could house a massive enrichment facility that would be impervious to bunker-busting bombs and cyberattacks, the New York Times reported Thursday.
The report said that the US and Israel had been monitoring construction at the site for several months, but had refrained from commenting on it publicly, with the exception of a brief remark made last month by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
“At this very time, Iran is making an effort to complete the production and installation of 1,000 advanced IR6 centrifuges at its nuclear facilities, including a new facility being built at an underground site near Natanz,” he said, speaking at a conference at Herzliya’s Reichman University.
Gantz’s public comments surprised both US and Israeli officials, the report said. Iran did not deny the accusation, having previously said it was constructing new facilities in response to attacks at the existing Natanz site, blamed on Israel.
Sattelite images published recently by research groups show that the new facility is close to the old center at Natanz, but buried far deeper under a mountain, in a similar manner to the Fordow plant. Efforts to attack such a site would require the most advanced bunker-busters, which Israel does not yet possess.
The report noted that the Americans and Israelis differ sharply over the seriousness of the implications of the construction.
Biden administration officials told the Times that they have been following the construction for more than a year and they were not especially alarmed.
They pointed out that the facility, which would be deep underneath a mountain, would not be ready for several years, giving the Americans time to deal with it either through diplomacy or force should the need arise.
They believe that the primary purpose of the new facility is to replace the centrifuge facility that was severely damaged in a sophisticated attack last year, blamed on Israel.
And while it would not play a role in Iranian abilities to construct a nuclear weapon in the near future, Tehran was using its existence to pressure the US into concessions in talks over a return to the nuclear deal.
Talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal have stalled.
The nuclear deal collapsed four years ago when former US president Donald Trump withdrew the United States and imposed crushing sanctions on Iran. In the meantime, Iran has vastly expanded its nuclear work, while insisting that it is for peaceful purposes.
“The Iranians’ highest priority is using the nuclear threat to gain concessions, economic and otherwise,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the recently retired head of US Central Command, told the Times.
Israeli officials, however, view the site very differently.
They see it as further evidence of Iran’s efforts to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities and justification for Israeli efforts to thwart the program, the Times said.
The report said the construction could be behind what it called accelerated Israeli efforts to thwart the program, referencing several recent attacks on Iranian scientists and engineers blamed on Israel.
It also noted that construction of the new site began around the same time as the killing of the father of Iran’s nuclear program Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which has also been blamed on Israel.
In his recent speech, Gantz said Iran is just a “few weeks” from accumulating sufficient fissile material for a bomb.
“Iran continues to accumulate irreversible knowledge and experience in the development, research, production, and operation of advanced centrifuges,” Gantz said.
“It stands just a few weeks away from accumulating fissile material that will be sufficient for a first bomb, holds 60 kg of enriched material at 60%, produces metallic uranium at the enrichment level of 20%, and prevents the IAEA from accessing its facilities,” he added, before revealing the construction at Natanz.
The Times report quoted several Israeli officials as saying they believe Iran’s ultimate objective is to use the facility to enrich uranium at a mass scale, using advanced new centrifuges.
American officials concede the new facility is quite large, and usually well protected, the Times said.
But while much of the West’s focus was on Iran’s nuclear program, General McKenzie warned that the major current threat came from Iran’s ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones, which he called Tehran’s “crown jewels.”
“And that’s where they’ve made huge strides in the last five to seven years,” General McKenzie said, “where they now realistically have overmatch against their neighbors.”