Report: Iran digging vast tunnel network south of Natanz nuclear facility
Israeli and American intelligence officials have been watching each day as Iran digs a vast tunnel network just south of the Natanz nuclear production site, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
According to the report, the officials believe this is Tehran’s biggest effort yet to construct new nuclear facilities so deep in the mountains that they can withstand bunker-busting bombs and cyberattacks.
Though the construction is evident on satellite photographs and has been monitored by groups that track the proliferation of new nuclear facilities, Biden administration officials have never talked about it in public and Israel’s defense minister has mentioned it just once, in a single sentence in a speech last month.
In interviews with national security officials in both nations, there clearly were differing interpretations of exactly how the Iranians may intend to use the site, and even how urgent a threat it poses.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said earlier this month that the country is just weeks away from being able to enrich enough bomb-grade fuel to make a single nuclear bomb, —though fashioning that into a usable weapon could take at least another two years, even by the most alarmist Israeli estimates, noted the New York Times.
The facility could eventually prove critical to Iran if the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement continue to run into roadblocks.
Iran scaled back its compliance with the 2015 deal, in response to former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May of 2018, but has held several rounds of indirect talks with the US on a return to the agreement.
An agreement was nearly reached before the talks stopped in March. US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley told lawmakers recently that the prospects for reaching a deal with Iran are “tenuous” at best.
According to Thursday’s New York Times report, the Iranians are looking for new pressure points, including the excavation of the mountain plant near Natanz. Over the past week, Iranian authorities have switched off 27 cameras that gave inspectors a view into Iran’s production of fuel.
The decision to cut off the cameras, which were installed as part of the nuclear deal, was particularly worrisome to Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations agency responsible for nuclear inspections.
If the cameras remain off for weeks, and it is impossible to track the whereabouts of nuclear materials, “I think this would be a fatal blow” to hopes of reviving the accord, Grossi said last week.
The new facility is close to Natanz, but it resembles Fordow, noted the report.
Biden administration officials say they have been following the construction of the new facility for more than a year, but are not especially alarmed as it is still several years from completion.
To the Israelis, the report said, the tunnel complex is more evidence of a relentless Iranian effort to pursue a bomb capability — and, in the minds of many Israeli military and intelligence leaders, a justification for Israel’s accelerated attacks on the nuclear program and the scientists and engineers behind both Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.