Iran’s hard-to-attack underground nuke facility part of increasing threat

Think tank report says Iran exploited JCPOA loopholes at Fordow

The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna (photo credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)
The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna
(photo credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)
Iran’s hard-to-attack underground Fordow nuclear facility is part of the increasing nuclear threat the country presents as it steadily escalates its violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, a new think tank report says.
According to the report by the Institute for Science and International Security, “Fordow is potentially part of Iran’s current threats to progressively go to higher enrichment levels and increase its stocks of enriched uranium.”
The report cites multiple Iranian officials who discussed increasing the level of uranium enrichment to 20% specifically at Fordow.
Though Tehran’s increasing its uranium enrichment level from 3.67% to 5% did not move it much closer to having enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, an increase to 20% would substantially shorten the break-out time.
Not only that, but if Israel, the US or their allies decided it was necessary to strike aspects of the Islamic republic’s nuclear program to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, they would face difficulties since Fordow’s underground tunnel complex is fortified to withstand most aerial bombardments, says the report.
There has been an ongoing but unresolved debate since around 2011 about what capabilities the US or Israel have to potentially destroy an underground facility like Fordow.
One aspect of the debate connects to the question of whether the US would be willing to provide Israel with “bunker-buster” bombs, designed to penetrate deep underground or whether even some of Israel’s newer bombs might penetrate deep enough to do the job.
The US has traditionally refused to give Israel “bunker busters,” but some believe the Trump administration might be more willing to and former CIA director Michael Hayden has previously told The Jerusalem Post that such a move might be necessary.
Part of what clearly concerns the report’s authors is that the Fordow uranium enrichment facility “has never been repurposed, as promised in the JCPOA. Everything required to enrich uranium to weapons grade could be quickly reconstituted in the underground portion of the facility.”
Under the terms of the 2015 deal, Tehran was expected to alter the purpose and contents of the facility from being a nuclear program focused to being “converted into a ‘nuclear, physics and technology center’ with the purpose of international scientific collaboration.”
Instead, Iran has built a variety of new facilities in the Fordow area, all of which could increase its nuclear program’s capabilities both below and above ground.
The report says that the Islamic republic has used ambiguities about how soon Iran was obligated to convert the facility to other purposes and about whether the JCPOA applied only to Fordow’s underground areas, to indefinitely delay any conversion and to build an above-ground vacuum technology center to advance its nuclear program.
The National Vacuum Technology Center “appears to have been built to reduce Iran’s dependence on importing pressure transducers and other vacuum equipment needed for the uninterrupted operation and anticipated expansion of its gas centrifuge plants,” the report says.
The bottom line is that rather than converting Fordow to non-nuclear scientific uses, Iran built new centers there which will help it operate more centrifuges to enrich more uranium, all of which could eventually help with breaking out to a nuclear bomb.
Returning briefly to the question of the effectiveness of a potential Israeli strike, one positive aspect of the new facility at Fordow is that it is above-ground and would not require bunker busters.
In addition, the Iranian Nuclear Archive seized by the Mossad in January 2018 shows that Fordow’s “original, intended purpose dating back to at least 2002 was to produce weapon-grade enriched uranium for 1-2 nuclear weapons per year. There is no doubt it could be reconstituted to fulfill that purpose,” the report says.
Based on the Mossad-obtained secret archives, the report essentially says that since Iran always intended Fordow to be a key part of breaking out to producing a nuclear bomb, it is logical to assume that any future breakout plan would use a similar strategy.