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Construction at Iran Site     10/28 06:51

   

   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iran has begun construction at its 
Natanz nuclear facility, satellite images released Wednesday show, just as the 
U.N. nuclear agency acknowledged Tehran is building an underground advanced 
centrifuge assembly plant after its last one exploded in a reported sabotage 
attack last summer.

   The construction comes as the U.S. nears Election Day in a campaign pitting 
President Donald Trump, whose maximum pressure campaign against Iran has led 
Tehran to abandon all limits on its atomic program, and Joe Biden, who has 
expressed a willingness to return to the accord. The outcome of the vote likely 
will decide which approach America takes. Heightened tensions between Iran and 
the U.S. nearly ignited a war at the start of the year.

   Since August, Iran has built a new or regraded road to the south of Natanz 
toward what analysts believe is a former firing range for security forces at 
the enrichment facility, images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs show. A 
satellite image Monday shows the site cleared away with what appears to be 
construction equipment there.

   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," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the 
institute who studies Iran's nuclear program. "Or maybe that they're just going 
to bury it there."

   Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a 
request for comment. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy 
Organization of Iran, last month told state television the destroyed 
above-ground facility was being replaced with one "in the heart of the 
mountains around Natanz."

   Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy 
Agency, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his inspectors were aware of 
the construction. He said Iran had previously informed IAEA inspectors, who 
continue to have access to Iran's sites despite the collapse of the nuclear 
deal.

   "It means that they have started, but it's not completed. It's a long 
process," Grossi said.

   Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from Iran's nuclear deal with 
world powers, in which Tehran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in 
exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. When the U.S. ramped up 
sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned those limits as a series of 
escalating incidents pushed the two countries to the brink of war at the 
beginning of the year.

   Iran now enriches uranium to up to 4.5% purity, and according to the last 
IAEA report, had a stockpile of 2,105 kilograms (2.32 tons). Experts typically 
say 1,050 kilograms (1.15 tons) of low-enriched uranium is enough material to 
be re-enriched up to weapons-grade levels of 90% purity for one nuclear weapon.

   Iran's so-called "breakout time" -- the time needed for it to build one 
nuclear weapon if it chose to do so -- is estimated now to have dropped from 
one year under the deal to as little as three months. Iran maintains its 
nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, though Western countries fear Tehran 
could use it to pursue atomic weapons.

   Natanz, built underground to harden it against airstrikes, long has been at 
the center of those fears since its discovery in 2002. Centrifuges there still 
spin in vast halls under 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete. Air defense 
positions surround the facility in Iran's central Isfahan province.

   Despite being one of the most-secure sites in Iran, Natanz was targeted by 
the Stuxnet computer virus -- believed to be the creation of the U.S. and 
Israel -- before the nuclear deal.

   In July, a fire and explosion struck its advanced centrifuge assembly 
facility in an incident Iran later described as sabotage. Suspicion has fallen 
on Israel, despite a claim of responsibility by a previously unheard-of group.

   There have been tensions with the IAEA and Iran even at Natanz, with Tehran 
accusing one inspector of testing positive for explosives last year. However, 
so far inspectors have been able to maintain their surveillance. something 
Lewis described as very important.

   "As long as they declared to the IAEA in the proper time frame, there's no 
prohibition on putting things underground," he said. "For me, the real red line 
would be if the Iranians started to stonewall the IAEA."

   For now, it remains unclear how deep Iran will put this new facility. And 
while the sabotage will delay Iran in assembling new centrifuges, Lewis warned 
the program ultimately would regroup as it had before and continue accumulating 
ever-more material beyond the scope of the abandoned nuclear deal.

   "We buy ourselves a few months," he said. "But what good is a few months if 
we don't know what we're going to use it for?"

 
 
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