Iran has begun a construction project near a recently built road at its Natanz nuclear facility, a satellite image released on Monday showed.
Tehran has been building “a new or regraded road to the south of Natanz towards what analysts believe is a former firing range for security forces at the enrichment facility” since August, the Associated Press (AP) reported on Wednesday, citing images from the San Francisco-based Planet Labs.
The new satellite image released on Monday “shows what appears to be construction equipment” near this road. According to the AP, “Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies say they believe the 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,” Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the institute who studies Iran’s nuclear program, told the news agency. “Or maybe that they’re just going to bury it there.”
News of the construction comes shortly after the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian state television on September 8 that the above-ground nuclear production hall at Natanz — destroyed in an explosion on July 2 — was being replaced with an underground advanced centrifuge assembly plant “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, told the AP on Tuesday that his inspectors were aware of the recent construction work at Natanz. Grossi said Tehran had previously informed IAEA inspectors of the planned construction. The new satellite imagery “means that they have started” work on the underground enrichment facility, “but it’s not completed. It’s a long process,” Grossi said. The IAEA chief did not provide further information on the project, saying “In the details, it’s safeguarded, confidential information.”
The Natanz uranium-enrichment site is one of several Iranian facilities that the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, maintains access to despite the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers.
“Reports in August had indicated that Iran was moving to boost uranium enrichment at Natanz. A document from the IAEA said new advanced centrifuges were being moved from a pilot facility to a new area of the nuclear facility,” the Times of Israel recalled on Wednesday.
AEOI chief Salehi last month described the July explosion at Natanz as “sabotage.” Tehran claimed in September to have identified those responsible for the act but failed to provide further details. Iranian state media has “attributed the explosion, which they said badly damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant, to Israel or the US,” according to the Times.