Satellite photos obtained by the Associated Press on Friday reportedly show new construction underway at Iran's underground nuclear site at Fordo.
Though the purpose of the building project is not yet known, the news will almost certainly trigger new concerns in the United States especially as Democratic President-elect Joe Biden signals he is open to re-entering the nuclear deal forged in 2015 when he was vice president.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bragged Thursday that he has "no doubt" the incoming U.S. administration under Biden will "bow" to Iran by rejoining the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions reimposed on the country by President Trump.
Iran has not publicly acknowledged the new construction, which the AP said began in late September, but the country has acknowledged re-upping its nuclear activities of late arguing that the U.S. departure in 2018 from the deal frees them from its obligations. The remaining countries to the agreement — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — continue to try and keep it from collapsing.
The news agency reported earlier this week that "Iran is now in violation of most major restrictions set out in the agreement, including the amount of enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile and the purity to which it is allowed to enrich uranium."
Here's more from the Friday report:
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.
A Dec. 11 satellite photo shows what appears to be a dug foundation for a building with dozens of pillars. Such pillars can be used in construction to support buildings in earthquake zones.
The construction site sits northwest of Fordo's underground facility, built deep inside a mountain to protect it from potential airstrikes. The site is near other support and research-and-development buildings at Fordo.
Among those buildings is Iran's National Vacuum Technology Center. Vacuum technology is a crucial component of Iran's uranium-gas centrifuges, which enrich uranium.
The new construction was reportedly first unearthed by a Twitter account called Observer IL, who posted an image online this week, citing South Korea's Korea Aerospace Research Institute. The account owner identified himself to the AP as a retired Israeli Defense Forces soldier but asked that his name not be published.
#Fordow Uranium Enrichment Plan #IRAN - New construction activity located in the support/R&D area, 350 meters East… https://t.co/GXIYPV8VjK— The Intel Lab - Observer (@The Intel Lab - Observer) 1608131055.0
U.S. officials have long suspected that the Fordo nuclear site has a military purpose, but Iran has maintained the highly dubious claim that it is not interested in creating a nuclear weapon.
Due to the suspicion around activities at Fordo, Iran expert Jeffrey Lewis, who studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told the AP that "any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran's nuclear program is headed."
"This location was a major sticking point in negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal," he added. "The U.S. insisted Iran close it while Iran's supreme leader said keeping it was a red line."