Middle East/North Africa

Iran begins construction at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

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Iran has begun construction on a site at one of its underground nuclear facilities, a move likely to further tensions with the U.S. in the final weeks of the Trump administration. 

According to satellite images obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, work has begun on a site at Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordo, whose discovery in 2009 came in a period of brinkmanship before world powers reached the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. 

Iran has not publicly confirmed the new construction, and the purpose of the work remains unclear, the AP reported. 

This comes as the latest move by Iran to further develop its nuclear program in the face of continued U.S. sanctions, with Iran last week announcing it was moving its nuclear facility in Natanz underground following a July explosion that Tehran described as a sabotage attack. 

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told the AP on Friday that the recent developments at the Fordo nuclear site “will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed.” 

According to the AP, satellite images indicated that construction at the Fordo site began in late September. The new construction site is built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential airstrikes, and it is located near other research buildings at Fordo. 

Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have increased since President Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, in which Iran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. 

Iran has cited the rise in U.S. sanctions since 2018 as justification for recent moves to advance its nuclear program. 

Earlier this month, both the Iranian parliament and the country’s Guardian Council voted to end United Nations inspections at nuclear facilities and to begin enriching uranium beyond the limit set by the 2015 deal. 

Following the votes, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf was quoted by state TV as saying that lawmakers are “hopeful to remove sanctions through this stern decision.”

President-elect Joe Biden has signaled a desire to reenter the 2015 nuclear agreement and, on Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he was hopeful that the U.S. will rejoin the Obama-era deal. 

“I have no doubt that the three-year resistance of the Iranian nation will force the future U.S. administration to succumb to the people and return to their commitments and break the sanctions,” Rouhani said during a videoconference, according to Iran’s Mehr News Agency

The remarks from Rouhani came one day after similar comments from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who endorsed Iran’s return to the pact if the U.S. ended Trump’s sanctions.

Tags 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Donald Trump Enriched uranium Hassan Rouhani Iran Iran nuclear program Joe Biden Nuclear sites The Associated Press U.S. sanctions

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