Iran is building a nuclear facility so deep underground that experts fear conventional U.S. weapons would be unable to destroy it.
“So the depth of the facility is a concern because it would be much harder for us. It would be much harder to destroy using conventional weapons, such as like a typical bunker buster bomb,” Steven De La Fuente, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The Associated Press in a report Monday.
The comments come after satellite imagery, taken in April by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by the AP, show workers digging tunnels near a peak of the Zagros Mountains in central Iran close to the Natanz nuclear site, a site long watched by international nuclear observers that has come under repeated sabotage attacks Iran has blamed on Israel.
The satellite imagery of the site, which is protected by fencing, anti-aircraft batteries, and Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, shows four entrances being dug into the mountainside. Analysts are able to estimate the depth of the entrances by looking at the size of the spoil piles and other satellite data, which they say now indicated the facility is at depths of 260 and 328 feet.
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Iran completing such a facility “would be a nightmare scenario that risks igniting a new escalatory spiral,” Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told The Associated Press.
“Given how close Iran is to a bomb, it has very little room to ratchet up its program without tripping U.S. and Israeli red lines. So at this point, any further escalation increases the risk of conflict,” Davenport said.
The report comes after the U.S. flaunted pictures of a powerful bomb designed to penetrate deep into underground facilities that could be used to enrich uranium earlier this month, with the Air Force posting rare pictures of the bomb that has been dubbed the “Massive Ordinance Penetrator.”
However, analysts fear the bomb, which is officially known as the GBU-57, will be unable to reach the depths of the progressively deeper Iranian facility.
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Iran has been inching dangerously closer to the ability to make nuclear weapons since the U.S. abandoned a deal struck with the country under former President Obama, saying it is now enriching uranium up to 60%. Under the terms of the previous agreement, Iran was prohibited enriching uranium above 3.67% purity.
President Biden has made rekindling the nuclear deal with Iran a primary objective of his administration’s foreign policy, though those talks have stalled in recent months.
While Iran has acknowledged enriching uranium up to 60%, inspectors have discovered the country has produced uranium particles that were 83.7% pure, just short of the 90% threshold of weapons-grade uranium.
However, Iran has denied it is seeking to build nuclear weapons, with Iranian officials telling the AP that “Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities are transparent and under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.”
Despite the claim, the country has limited the ability for international nuclear inspectors to inspect sites for years. Meanwhile, experts fear attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program may only work to drive it further underground.
“Sabotage may roll back Iran’s nuclear program in the short-term, but it is not a viable, long-term strategy for guarding against a nuclear-armed Iran,” Davenport said. “Driving Iran’s nuclear program further underground increases the proliferation risk.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.