AP / May 23, 2023
JERUSALEM – The Israeli government’s national security adviser on Tuesday said a new nuclear facility being built by Iran would not be immune from attack, despite assessments by experts it will be beyond the reach of last-ditch U.S. bunker-busting bombs.
Tzachi Hanegbi made the comments in response to an Associated Press report that said the new facility appears to be as deep as 100 meters (328 feet) below ground.
Hanegbi, speaking at a security conference near Tel Aviv, said he was not surprised by the report, noting that Iran has other underground facilities. While he acknowledged the location would complicate any potential military strike on the facility, he said there are still solutions to the challenge.
“What is possible to say about this matter is that there is no place that can’t be reached,” he said.
He declined to say whether Israel had the ability to do this on its own.
“We hope we won’t get to a situation where the solution to the story of a nuclear weapon in Iran is a kinetic solution, a solution involving an attack,” he said, adding that Israel prefers to see the international standoff with Iran resolved through diplomatic means.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. He has said international diplomacy should be accompanied by a serious military option and hinted that Israel would be prepared to strike Iran on its own if necessary.
Photos and videos of Iran’s new facility from Planet Labs PBC show Iran has been digging tunnels near the Natanz nuclear site, which has come under repeated sabotage attacks over the years. Excavation mounds at the site suggest the facility could be between 80 meters (260 feet) and 100 meters (328 feet) under the ground, according to experts and AP’s analysis.
The Islamic Republic denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, though officials in Tehran now openly discuss their ability to pursue one.
With Iran now producing uranium close to weapons-grade levels after the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers, the installation complicates the West’s efforts to halt Iran from potentially developing an atomic bomb as diplomacy over its nuclear program remains stalled.
The construction comes five years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear accord. Since then, Iran has stepped up its uranium enrichment far beyond the limits of the accord. Experts believe it is just a short step from reaching the 90% enrichment threshold of weapons-grade uranium.
Uranium enrichment is a key element of producing a nuclear bomb. Israeli experts believe Iran would need additional time, up to two years, to develop the means to deliver and detonate a warhead.
Addressing the same conference, Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said Israel is closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program and reiterated that the military is prepared to take action.
“There are possible negative developments on the horizon and that can bring about action,” he said. “We have capabilities. Others have capabilities, and this is a very significant and important matter.”
‘Action’ on horizon over Iran nuclear work, says top Israeli general
The National / May 23, 2023
Chief of Israel’s armed forces said ‘negative developments’ could bring military action
Israel’s top general on Tuesday raised the prospect of action against Iran, despite National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi playing down any immediate threat from a new underground nuclear centre being built by Tehran.
Efforts by world powers to negotiate new limits on Iranian uranium enrichment and other projects have been fruitless so far, fanning threats by Israel to resort to force if it considers diplomacy to be at a dead end.
“Iran has advanced with uranium enrichment further than ever before … there are negative developments on the horizon that could bring about [military] action,” Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, chief of Israel’s armed forces, said in a speech.
He did not detail what those developments might be, or what action might be taken and by whom.
“We have capabilities and others also have capabilities,” Gen Halevi told the Herzliya Conference, an international security forum, apparently referring to the US.
Experts are divided over whether the Israeli military has the ability to deal lasting damage to Iranian nuclear centres that are distant, dispersed and defended.
Iran denies wanting a nuclear bomb and has pledged devastating reprisals for any attack.
There has been speculation that Israel might use countries on Iran’s borders as springboards for strikes.
One such country, Azerbaijan, dismissed that idea despite its strong ties with Israel.
“We refrain from interfering in the disputes or problems [of other countries], including by allowing or giving our territory for some operations or adventures,” deputy Azeri foreign minister Fariz Rzayev said at the conference.
AP on Monday reported that Iran was building a new underground site in the Zagros Mountains to replace an exposed uranium centrifuge plant at nearby Natanz that was hit by an explosion and fire in July 2020.
VIDEO : US and Israel pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons :
‘Action’ on horizon over Iran nuclear work, says top Israeli general (thenationalnews.com)
“This, of course, limits the capacity to carry out an attack, relative to above-ground facilities, which is of course easier,” Mr Hanegbi told the conference.
“But what can be said about this matter is that there is nowhere that cannot be reached.”
After the 2020 incident, Iran announced in 2021 that it was working to move some of its centrifuge plants into the “heart of the mountain near Natanz”, an area where Iranian engineers have long carried out excavation work.
Mr Hanegbi declined to explicitly threaten an attack by Israel and even suggested the onus would be on the US, saying it has massive GBU-43/B bombs that Israel does not.
In any event, he said: “This [underground centre near Natanz] is years away from being completed.”
Although Washington prefers to pursue diplomacy with Iran, the allies see “eye to eye” and have no significant difference on possible red lines for last-resort military action, Mr Hanegbi said.
Paul Carey – Deputy London Bureau Chief
US bomb designed to hit targets like Iran underground nuclear sites briefly reappears amid tensions
The Independent / May 22, 2023
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – As tensions with Iran have escalated over its nuclear program, the U.S. military this month posted pictures of a powerful bomb designed to penetrate deep into the earth and destroy underground facilities that could be used to enrich uranium.
The U.S. Air Force on May 2 released rare images of the weapon, the GBU-57, known as the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator.” Then it took the photos down — apparently because the photographs revealed sensitive details about the weapon’s composition and punch.
The publication of the photographs comes as The Associated Press reported that Iran is making steady progress in constructing a nuclear facility that is likely beyond the range of the GBU-57, which is considered the U.S. military last-ditch weapon to take out underground bunkers.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT AMERICA’S MASSIVE ORDNANCE PENETRATOR ?
The U.S. developed the Massive Ordnance Penetrator in the 2000s as concerns grew over Iran hardening its nuclear sites by building them underground.
The Air Force posted images of the bombs on the Facebook page for Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The base is home to the fleet of B-2 stealth bombers, the only aircraft that can deploy the bomb.
In a caption, the base said it had received two Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs so a munitions squadron there could “test their performance.”
It is not the first time the Air Force has published photos and videos of the bomb that coincided with rising acrimony with Tehran over its nuclear program. In 2019, the U.S. military released a video of a B-2 bomber dropping two of the bombs. The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment on why it posted — and removed — the most recent set of photos.
WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM THE PHOTOS ?
The latest photos revealed stencilling on the bombs that listed their weight as 12,300 kilograms (27,125 pounds). It also described the bomb as carrying a mix of AFX-757 — a standard explosive — and PBXN-114, a relatively new explosive compound, said Rahul Udoshi, a senior weapons analyst at Janes, an open-source intelligence firm.
The weight of the bomb, judging from the stencilling, shows the majority of it comes from its thick steel frame, which allows it to chew through concrete and soil before exploding. However, it remains unclear what the exact effectiveness of the weapon would be.
The Warzone, an Internet news site, first reported on the publication of the photographs. The AP contacted Whiteman Air Force Base and the Air Force’s Global Strike Command with questions about the images. Within a day, the Facebook post vanished.
Udoshi said the Air Force likely took them down because they revealed too much data about the bombs. “Immediate removal from the internet without comment (or) justification means there is a potential lapse,” Udoshi said.
WHAT ROLE WOULD THIS BOMB PLAY IN POTENTIALLY TARGETING IRAN’S NUCLEAR PROGRAM ?
The AP reported on Monday that satellite imagery from Planet Labs PBC reveals Tehran has been digging tunnels in the mountain near the Natanz nuclear site in central Iran. Excavation mounds at the site suggest the facility could be between 80 meters (260 feet) and 100 meters (328 feet) under the ground, according to the experts and AP’s analysis.
Experts say the size of the construction project indicates Iran likely would be able to use the underground facility to enrich uranium as well — not just to build centrifuges. Those tube-shaped centrifuges, arranged in large cascades of dozens of machines, rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it. Additional machines would allow Iran to quickly enrich uranium under the mountain’s protection.
That could be a problem for the GBU-57: In previously describing the bomb’s capabilities, the Air Force has said it could tear through 60 meters (200 feet) of ground and cement before detonating.
COULD THE UNITED STATES STILL TRY TO DROP THE BOMB ?
U.S. officials have discussed using two such bombs in succession to ensure a site is destroyed. But even then, the new depth of the Natanz tunnels likely presents a serious challenge.
Further complicating any possible U.S. military strike is that the B-2 has been grounded since December when one caught fire after an emergency landing. The U.S. still could fly the aircraft “if there’s an operational need,” said Col. Brus E. Vidal, a spokesperson for the Air Force’s Global Strike Command.
The Associated Press receives support for nuclear security coverage from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Outrider Foundation; the AP is solely responsible for all content_
Iran nuclear site deep underground challenges West as talks on reviving atomic deal have stalled
The Independent / May 23, 2023
Near a peak of the Zagros Mountains in central Iran, workers are building a nuclear facility so deep in the earth that it is likely beyond the range of a last-ditch U.S. weapon designed specifically for such sites.
Iran nuclear site deep underground challenges West as talks on reviving atomic deal have stalled.
Near a peak of the Zagros Mountains in central Iran, workers are building a nuclear facility so deep in the earth that it is likely beyond the range of a last-ditch U.S. weapon designed to destroy such sites, according to experts and satellite imagery analyzed by The Associated Press.
The photos and videos from Planet Labs PBC show Iran has been digging tunnels in the mountain near the Natanz nuclear site, which has come under repeated sabotage attacks amid Tehran’s standoff with the West over its atomic program.
With Iran now producing uranium close to weapons-grade levels after the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers, the installation complicates the West’s efforts to halt Tehran from potentially developing an atomic bomb as diplomacy over its nuclear program remains stalled.
Completion of such a facility “would be a nightmare scenario that risks igniting a new escalatory spiral,” warned Kelsey Davenport, the director of non-proliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “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.”
The construction at the Natanz site comes five years after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear accord. Trump argued the deal did not address Tehran’s ballistic missile program, nor its support of militias across the wider Middle East.
But what it did do was strictly limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 3.67% purity, powerful enough only to power civilian power stations, and keep its stockpile to just some 300 kilograms (660 pounds).
Since the demise of the nuclear accord, Iran has said it is enriching uranium up to 60%, though inspectors recently discovered the country had produced uranium particles that were 83.7% pure. That is just a short step from reaching the 90% threshold of weapons-grade uranium.
As of February, international inspectors estimated Iran’s stockpile was over 10 times what it was under the Obama-era deal, with enough enriched uranium to allow Tehran to make “several” nuclear bombs, according to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
President Joe Biden and Israel’s prime minister have said they won’t allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon. “We believe diplomacy is the best way to achieve that goal, but the president has also been clear that we have not removed any option from the table,” the White House said in a statement to the AP.
The Islamic Republic denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, though officials in Tehran now openly discuss their ability to pursue one.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations, in response to questions from the AP regarding the construction, said that “Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities are transparent and under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.”
However, Iran has been limiting access for international inspectors for years.
Iran says the new construction will replace an above-ground centrifuge manufacturing center at Natanz struck by an explosion and fire in July 2020. Tehran blamed the incident on Israel, long suspected of running sabotage campaigns against its program.
Tehran has not acknowledged any other plans for the facility, though it would have to declare the site to the IAEA if they planned to introduce uranium into it. The Vienna-based IAEA did not respond to questions about the new underground facility.
The new project is being constructed next to Natanz, about 225 kilometers (140 miles) south of Tehran. Natanz has been a point of international concern since its existence became known two decades ago.
Protected by anti-aircraft batteries, fencing and Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, the facility sprawls across 2.7 square kilometers (1 square mile) in the country’s arid Central Plateau.
Satellite photos taken in April by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by the AP show Iran burrowing into the Kūh-e Kolang Gaz Lā, or “Pickaxe Mountain,” which is just beyond Natanz’s southern fencing.
A different set of images analyzed by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reveals that four entrances have been dug into the mountainside, two to the east and another two to the west. Each is 6 meters (20 feet) wide and 8 meters (26 feet) tall.
The scale of the work can be measured in large dirt mounds, two to the west and one to the east. Based on the size of the spoil piles and other satellite data, experts at the center told AP that Iran is likely building a facility at a depth of between 80 meters (260 feet) and 100 meters (328 feet). The center’s analysis, which it provided exclusively to AP, is the first to estimate the tunnel system’s depth based on satellite imagery.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nonprofit long focused on Iran’s nuclear program, suggested last year the tunnels could go even deeper.
Experts say the size of the construction project indicates Iran likely would be able to use the underground facility to enrich uranium as well — not just to build centrifuges. Those tube-shaped centrifuges, arranged in large cascades of dozens of machines, rapidly spin uranium gas to enrich it. Additional cascades spinning would allow Iran to quickly enrich uranium under the mountain’s protection.
“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,” said Steven De La Fuente, a research associate at the center who led the analysis of the tunnel work.
The new Natanz facility is likely to be even deeper underground than Iran’s Fordo facility, another enrichment site that was exposed in 2009 by U.S. and other world leaders. That facility sparked fears in the West that Iran was hardening its program from airstrikes.
Such underground facilities led the U.S. to create the GBU-57 bomb, which can plow through at least 60 meters (200 feet) of earth before detonating, according to the American military. U.S. officials reportedly have discussed using two such bombs in succession to ensure a site is destroyed. It is not clear that such a one-two punch would damage a facility as deep as the one at Natanz.
With such bombs potentially off the table, the U.S. and its allies are left with fewer options to target the site. If diplomacy fails, sabotage attacks may resume.
Already, Natanz has been targeted by the Stuxnet virus, believed to be an Israeli and American creation, which destroyed Iranian centrifuges. Israel also is believed to have killed scientists involved in the program, struck facilities with bomb-carrying drones and launched other attacks. Israel’s government declined to comment.
Experts say such disruptive actions may push Tehran even closer to the bomb — and put its program even deeper into the mountain where airstrikes, further sabotage and spies may not be able to reach it.
“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,” said Davenport, the non-proliferation expert. “Driving Iran’s nuclear program further underground increases the proliferation risk.”
The Associated Press receives support for nuclear security coverage from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Outrider Foundation; The AP is solely responsible for all content