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Satellite photos show construction at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site

New images show road has been built; analysts believe new facility to be built inside mountains, months after reported sabotage

Construction at Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment facility that experts believe may be a new, underground centrifuge assembly plant, annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, October 26, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
Construction at Iran's Natanz uranium-enrichment facility that experts believe may be a new, underground centrifuge assembly plant, annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, October 26, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran has begun construction at its Natanz nuclear facility, satellite images released Wednesday showed, just as the UN’s nuclear agency acknowledged Tehran was building an underground advanced centrifuge assembly plant after its last one exploded in a reported sabotage attack last summer.

Since August, Iran has built a new or regraded road to the south of Natanz toward what analysts believe is a former firing range for security forces at the enrichment facility, images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs show.

A satellite image Monday shows the site cleared away with what appears to be construction equipment there.

The construction comes as the US nears Election Day in a campaign pitting President Donald Trump, whose maximum pressure campaign against Iran has led Tehran to abandon all limits on its atomic program, and Joe Biden, who has expressed a willingness to return to the accord. The outcome of the vote likely will decide which approach the US takes. Heightened tensions between Iran and the US nearly ignited a war at the start of the year.

Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies say they believe that site is undergoing excavation.

“That road also goes into the mountains so it may be the fact that they’re digging some kind of structure that’s going to be out in front and that there’s going to be a tunnel in the mountains,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the institute who studies Iran’s nuclear program. “Or maybe that they’re just going to bury it there.”

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

Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his inspectors were aware of the construction. He said Iran had previously informed IAEA inspectors, who continue to have access to Iran’s sites despite the collapse of the nuclear deal.

“It means that they have started, but it’s not completed. It’s a long process,” Grossi said.

Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, would not comment on the satellite images or discuss specifics of the construction, but said Iran was being transparent with its actions.

“Nothing in Iran regarding its peaceful nuclear program is being done in secret, in full keeping with the JCPOA, and as the IAEA has repeatedly confirmed,” Miryousefi said in an email.

“This instance is no different,” he said.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, last month told state television the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with one “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.”

Iran said last month it had identified those responsible for the sabotage at the Natanz facility, but did not provide further details. Foreign media reports have attributed the explosion, which they said badly damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant, to Israel or the US.

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 in August had indicated that Iran was moving to boost uranium enrichment at Natanz. A document from the International Atomic Energy Agency said new advanced centrifuges were being moved from a pilot facility to a new area of the nuclear facility.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this story.

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