Iran builds at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

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This Dec. 11, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran's Fordo nuclear facility. Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the U.S. over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, by The Associated Press show. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

DUBAI – Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the U.S. over its atomic program, according to satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.

Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, whose discovery by the West in 2009 came in an earlier round of brinkmanship before world powers struck the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo likely will trigger new concern in the waning days of the Trump administration before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

“Any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed," said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies Iran.

Asked for comment, Iran's mission to the United Nations told the AP that “none of Iran’s nuclear activities are secret,” given the ongoing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"We have always maintained that our current activities, which are in line with (the nuclear deal), can and will be immediately reversed once the other parties, including the U.S., come into full compliance with what was agreed upon, in particular on removing sanctions,” mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said. He did not elaborate.

The Vienna-based IAEA, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, declined to comment. The agency as of yet has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.

Construction on the Fordo site began in late September. Satellite images obtained from Maxar Technologies by the AP show the construction taking place at a northwest corner of the site, near the holy Shiite city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran.