Iran Digging Tunnel Network for Watertight Nuclear Facility, Report Finds

The ongoing construction of the tunnel network out of bomb's reach has been known for months via satellite photos, and represents a growing divide between the U.S. and Israel over Iran's nuclear program, a New York Times report reveals

This satellite image depicts Iran's Natanz nuclear site, as well as the construction of the underground tunnel network into the side of a mountain on the bottom left, May 9, 2022.
This satellite image depicts Iran's Natanz nuclear site, as well as the construction of the underground tunnel network into the side of a mountain on the bottom left, May 9, 2022.Credit: Planet Labs PBC via Associated Press

The U.S. and Israel have been monitoring the construction of a vast underground network of tunnels being built by Iran south of the Natanz nuclear site, likely immune to cyberattacks and all but the most powerful bunker-busting American bombs, the New York Times reported Friday.

The ongoing construction of the tunnel network deep below the ground has been known for months via satellite photos, but has never publicly been addressed by the Biden administration. By contrast, Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz broke the government's radio silence on the tunnel network in a speech last month.

“At this very time, Iran is making an effort to complete the production and installation of 1,000 advanced IR6 centrifuges at its nuclear facilities, including a new facility being built at an underground site near Natanz,” he said at a conference at Reichman University.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Mohammad Eslami at an event for Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran, last month.Credit: Photo by HO / Iranian Presidency

Sources in the Biden administration say they've been following the construction for over a year, but were not particularly worried — the project is still several years from completion, which the Biden administration sees as plenty of time to deal with the development down the road, either through negotiations or by force if necessary.

Israeli officials believe Iran is ramping up its efforts to scale up its uranium enrichment by installing a series of advanced centrifuges at the new facility, which it is already testing at existing sites. According to the Times, however, Israeli and American sources suspect the new site's immediate purpose is to replace a centrifuge factory that Israel destroyed two years ago.

But ahead of President Biden's first visit to the Middle East, where he will meet with Israeli and Saudi officials, Israeli officials say the new facility is much larger than needed to replace the original centrifuge assembly facility. Yet, the U.S. remains unconvinced Iran will use the massive new tunnel complex to enrich uranium, American officials say, at least in the near term.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Saturday.Credit: JIM WATSON / AFP

Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that Iran is mere weeks away from being able to reach enrichment levels necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, although actually developing a bomb and mounting it onto a launch-ready missile could take years.

American officials believe Tehran's position, rapidly developing its nuclear capabilities just short of a nuclear bomb, could be used as leverage in negotiations with the U.S. “The Iranians’ highest priority is using the nuclear threat to gain concessions, economic and otherwise,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the recently retired head of U.S. Central Command, told the Times. “They like the idea of hanging the nuclear program over us because it produces a response."

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