Satellite imagery points to Iran moving Natanz underground - NYT

Following the mysterious July explosion, which started a fire at the facility damaging key centrifuges, the Times' Visual Investigations team began tracking construction at the site.

A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020 (photo credit: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A handout satellite image shows a general view of the Natanz nuclear facility after a fire, in Natanz, Iran July 8, 2020
(photo credit: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Satellite imagery shows that Iran is moving its key Natanz nuclear site underground, according to a New York Times report.
Following the mysterious July explosion, which started a fire at the Natanz facility damaging key centrifuges, the Times' Visual Investigations team began tracking construction and repairs at the site.
On December 9, reporter Christoph Koettl reported that "tunnel entrances for underground construction are [now[ visible under a ridge in the mountain foothills south of the Natanz facility, about 140 miles south of Tehran."
The NYT worked closely with Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, to break down the images and identify any anomalies or points of interest or importance.
"The new facility is likely to be a far more secure location for centrifuge assembly – it is located far from a road and the ridge offers significant overburden that would protect the facility from air attack," Lewis told the Times.
The newspaper pointed further to Lewis's indications that Iran was moving the key site underground, adding that even something as "simple and inconspicuous as a pile of dirt" could be "a clue."
"There are what appear to be two tunnel entrances on either side of a large ridge, with a pile of spoil from excavation nearby," Lewis told NYT. "The space between the two entrances is large enough to accommodate a facility about the same size as the centrifuge assembly building that was destroyed this summer – and that Iran indicated it was rebuilding in the mountains."
"The major clue is the pile of spoil from the excavation that was not present in July," Lewis added. "Iran also regraded a pair of roads on each side of the ridge leading to what appear to be tunnel entrances."
A separate investigation by Allison Puccioni, an imagery analyst who works with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told the Times that the satellite images show "trails of excavated earth, lighter in color than the existing hard-packed road."

IRAN HAS begun building a hall in "the heart of the mountains" near its Natanz nuclear site for the production of advanced centrifuges, Iran’s nuclear chief said on Tuesday.
It is meant to replace a production hall at the facility which was damaged by fire in July. Tehran said at the time that the fire was the result of sabotage and had caused significant damage, which could slow the development of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.
“It was decided to establish a more modern, wider and more comprehensive hall in all dimensions in the heart of the mountain near Natanz. Of course, the work has begun,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, according to state TV.
Iran plans to install hundreds of additional advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges at an underground plant, in breach of its deal with major powers, a UN nuclear watchdog report showed on Friday, a move that will raise pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden.
The confidential International Atomic Energy Agency report obtained by Reuters said Iran plans to install three more cascades, or clusters, of advanced IR-2m centrifuges in the underground plant, which was apparently built to withstand aerial bombardment.
Iran's nuclear deal with major powers says that it can only use first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at the underground plant, which are less efficient, and that those are the only machines with which Iran may accumulate enriched uranium.
Iran recently moved one cascade of 174 IR-2m machines underground at Natanz and is enriching with it. It already planned to install two more cascades of other advanced models there, in addition to the 5,060 IR-1 machines that have been enriching for years in the plant built for more than 50,000.
"In a letter dated 2 December 2020, Iran informed the Agency that the operator of the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz 'intends to start installation of three cascades of IR-2m centrifuge machines' at FEP," the IAEA's report to its member states said.

IRAN HAS breached many of the deal's core restrictions on its nuclear activities in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the agreement and his reimposition of crippling economic sanctions. Tehran says its breaches can quickly be reversed if Washington's moves are undone.
Biden, who is set to take office on January 20, has said he will bring the United States back into the deal if Iran resumes full compliance with its nuclear restrictions. That raises the prospect of a standoff over who should move first.
Iran transferred the already-operating cascade of IR-2ms underground from an above-ground plant at Natanz where only a handful of those machines remain, the IAEA has said. The extra cascades would therefore have to involve some of the hundreds of IR-2m machines removed and put into storage under the 2015 deal.
While the first cascade did not increase Iran's production of enriched uranium because it was already enriching above ground, the extra cascades would.
The IAEA's last quarterly report on the Islamic Republic last month showed that Tehran had stockpiled 12 times the 202.8 kg of enriched uranium it is allowed to have under the deal – more than 2.4 tons.
That is still a fraction of the more than eight tons it had before the landmark 2015 deal, and it has not enriched uranium to a purity of more than 4.5% since then. It did achieve 20% before 2015, closer to the 90% of weapons-grade uranium.
U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe that Iran had a coordinated, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003, the year its secret construction of Natanz was revealed by an opposition group in exile.
The deal is aimed at keeping Tehran at arm's length from being able to produce a nuclear bomb. It says it has never tried to.

Zachary Keyser and Reuters contributed to this report.


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