AP Analysis: Activity at Iran’s nuclear site raises risks

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Ten years ago while flanked by the leaders of Britain and France, then-President Barack Obama revealed to the world that Iran had built a “covert uranium enrichment facility” amid tensions with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

A decade later, Iran’s Fordo facility is back in the news as Iran prepared Wednesday to inject uranium gas into the more than 1,000 centrifuges there to pressure the world after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Tehran’s nuclear deal.

The resumption of nuclear activity at Fordo pushes the risk of a wider confrontation involving Iran even higher after months of attacks across the Middle East that the U.S. blames on Tehran. Israel, which has carried out pre-emptive airstrikes on its adversaries’ nuclear programs in the past, also is repeating a warning that it will not allow Iran to have atomic weapons.

Tehran, which maintains its program is peaceful, is gambling that its own maximum pressure campaign will be enough to push Europe to offer it a way to sell Iranian crude oil abroad despite U.S. sanctions

Activity at Fordo, just north of the Shiite holy city of Qom, remains a major concern for nuclear nonproliferation experts. Buried under a mountain and protected by anti-aircraft batteries, Fordo appears designed to withstand airstrikes. Its construction began at least in 2007, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, although Iran only informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog about the facility in 2009.

“As a result of the augmentation of the threats of military attacks against Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to establish contingency centers for various organizations and activities,” Iran wrote in a letter to the IAEA.

Satellite images, however, suggest construction at the Fordo site as early as between 2002 and 2004, the IAEA said. In August 2002, Western intelligence services and an Iranian opposition group had revealed another covert nuclear site at the central city of Natanz. Iran also “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” through the end of 2003, the IAEA has said.

While Natanz is large enough for industrial-scale enrichment, Fordo is smaller and can hold only 3,000 centrifuges. That led analysts to suspect Fordo could be used as a facility to divert and rapidly enrich low-grade uranium, although the highest reported enrichment reached there went to 20%.