Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its atomic programme, new satellite photos show.
Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, whose discovery by the west in 2009 came in an earlier round of brinkmanship before world powers struck the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.
While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo is likely to trigger new concern in the waning days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden.
Iran is already building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.
The country’s mission to the United Nations said “none of Iran’s nuclear activities are secret”, given the ongoing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“We have always maintained that our current activities, which are in line with (the nuclear deal), can and will be immediately reversed once the other parties, including the US, come into full compliance with what was agreed upon, in particular on removing sanctions,” spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.
Construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained from Maxar Technologies by the Associated Press show the construction taking place at a north-west 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 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 Centre. Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran’s uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.
A Twitter account called Observer IL earlier this week published an image of Fordo showing the construction, saying it came from South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
The AP later reached the Twitter user, who identified himself as a retired Israeli Defence Forces soldier with a civil engineering background.
He asked that his name not be published over previous threats he received online. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute acknowledged taking the satellite photo.
Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
When the US 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 still remain high.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead make it “a nuclear, physics and technology centre”.
Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment there.