Iran builds at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

Iran builds at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions
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 US over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, by The Associated Press show. (AP)
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Updated 18 December 2020

Iran builds at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions

Iran builds at underground nuclear facility amid US tensions
  • Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo
  • Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo amid tensions with the US over its atomic program, satellite photos obtained Friday by The Associated Press show.
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.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors are in Iran as part of the nuclear deal, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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.
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 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.
A Twitter account called Observer IL earlier this week published an image of Fordo showing the construction, citing it as coming from South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute.
The AP later reached the Twitter user, who identified himself as a retired Israeli Defense Forces soldier with a civil engineering background. He asked that his name not be published over previous threats he received online. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute acknowledged taking the satellite photo.
Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump cited Iran’s ballistic missile program, its regional policies and other issues in withdrawing from the accord, though the deal focused entirely on Tehran’s atomic program.
When the US ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits as a series of escalating incidents pushed the two countries to the brink of war at the beginning of the year. Tensions still remain high.
Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead make it “a nuclear, physics and technology center.”
“This location was a major sticking point in negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal,” Lewis said. “The US insisted Iran close it while Iran’s supreme leader said keeping it was a red line.”
Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment there.
Shielded by the mountains, the facility also is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Iran’s parliament has passed a bill that requires Tehran to enrich up to 20%, a short technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. The bill also would throw out IAEA inspectors.
Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opposed the bill, the country’s Guardian Council later tweaked and approved it. The bill seeks to pressure European nations to provide relief from crippling US sanctions.
Meanwhile, an Iranian scientist who created its military nuclear program two decades ago recently was killed in a shooting outside of Tehran. Iran has blamed Israel, which has long been suspected of killing Iranian nuclear scientists over the last decade, for the attack. Israel has not comment.


Egypt train driver ‘not at controls’ during deadly Sohag crash

Egypt train driver ‘not at controls’ during deadly Sohag crash
Updated 24 min 2 sec ago

Egypt train driver ‘not at controls’ during deadly Sohag crash

Egypt train driver ‘not at controls’ during deadly Sohag crash
  • Prosecutor: Driver and his assistant “were not in the driver’s cabin” at the time of the crash
  • At least 20 people died and 199 were injured in the March 26 crash near Sohag in southern Egypt

CAIRO: The driver of a speeding Egyptian train and his assistant had both left the driver’s cabin when it crashed into another train last month, the prosecution service alleged Sunday.
The prosecutor also alleged that the assistant of the other train, which was stationary, and a track signalman were under the influence of the powerful painkiller tramadol, and that the former had also used cannabis.
At least 20 people died and 199 were injured in the March 26 crash near Sohag in southern Egypt, according to the authorities’ latest count which had already been revised several times.
Video images caught on a surveillance camera show the moving train hitting a stationary train at speed, sending one carriage hurtling into the air, in an immense cloud of dust.
According to an investigative report cited by the prosecutor on Sunday, the driver and his assistant “were not in the driver’s cabin” at the time of the crash, “contrary to their claims.”
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has vowed to hold to account those responsible for the latest of several deadly train accidents in recent years.
Transport Minister Kamel el-Wazir — a former general named to the post after a deadly 2019 train collision — has blamed the latest crash on human error.
“We have a problem with the human element,” he told a TV talk show, where he pledged to put in place an automated network by 2024.
At least eight people, including the driver of the moving train and his assistant, were arrested shortly after the crash in the village of Samaa Gharb, 460 kilometers (285 miles) south of Cairo.
One train was traveling between the southern city of Luxor and Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, and the other was en route between the southern city of Aswan and Cairo.
After the disaster, a military conscript who was on the Cairo-bound train told AFP that the second train struck the one he was traveling on about 15 minutes after his had come to a stop.
Egyptian rail disasters are generally attributed to poor infrastructure and maintenance.
One of the country’s deadliest train crashes came in 2002, when 373 people died as a fire ripped through a crowded train south of Cairo.
The African Development Bank announced a loan of 145 million euros ($170 million) Tuesday to improve safety on Egypt’s rail network, following the latest disaster.
The bank said the money would be used “to enhance operational safety and to increase network capacity on national rail lines.”
“The planned upgrades are expected to benefit low-income Egyptians, about 40 percent of the population, who rely on trains as an affordable mode of transport,” it said in a statement.


Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests

Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests
Updated 11 April 2021

Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests

Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests
  • Gantz hopes Israeli security would be safeguarded under any renewed nuclear deal
  • Austin was making the first visit to Israel by a senior Biden administration official

TEL AVIV: Israel will work with Washington to ensure any “new agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program will safeguard regional security, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on Sunday.
The comments came as Austin made the first high-level US trip to Israel since talks resumed on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which the Jewish state fiercely opposed.
Gantz said “we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
Austin, the highest-level envoy from President Joe Biden’s administration yet to visit ally Israel, said Washington would work with Israel “to advance shared security interest and priorities.”
Stressing America’s “iron-clad” bond with Israel, Austin said the US will “continue close consultations to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and to strengthen Israel’s security.”
Austin’s visit came just days after the US said it had offered “very serious” ideas on reviving the hobbled nuclear agreement reached between Tehran and world powers, which was abandoned by former president Donald Trump in 2018.
Israel under hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear deal, dating back to when it was being negotiated during Barack Obama’s administration.
Netanyahu, whom Austin was due to meet on his visit, applauded when Trump withdrew from the deal and imposed sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping back from several of its commitments under the deal.
In the latest breach of its undertakings in the troubled agreement, Tehran announced on Saturday that it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.
President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades — of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices respectively — at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.
An “accident” took place at Natanz on Sunday but caused no casualties or damage, the Fars news agency reported, citing officials.
In an address marking the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu had said on Wednesday that Israel would not be bound to a nuclear deal that would enable the Islamic republic to develop atomic weapons.
“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons — weapons that threaten our extinction — would not compel us in any way,” said the veteran premier.
Biden has said he is prepared to return to the agreement, arguing the deal had — until Washington’s withdrawal — been successful in dramatically scaling back Iran’s nuclear activities.
But Washington has demanded Iran returns to compliance while Tehran has insisted on an end to all US restrictions, with each side demanding that the other make the first move.


Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift
Updated 11 April 2021

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift

CAIRO: Jordan's King Abdullah and his half borther Prince Hamza made a joint appearance on Sunday attending a ceremony marking 100 years of the Hashemite kingdom’s independence. 

The royal palace released a photo with Abdullah II, Prince Hamzah, Crown Prince Hussein and other dignitaries at the grave of King Talal in Amman, Jordan's capital.

This is their first public appearance together since a rare palace feud last week.


Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December

Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December
Updated 11 April 2021

Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December

Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December
  • That brings the total number of fatalities from the coronavirus to 64,490
  • 21,063 new cases were identified in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of identified cases since the pandemic began to 2,070,141

DUBAI: Iran reported 258 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said on Sunday, the highest daily toll since early December.
That brings the total number of fatalities from the coronavirus to 64,490 in Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East.
Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari told state TV that 21,063 new cases were identified in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of identified cases since the pandemic began to 2,070,141.
“Unfortunately, in the past 24 hours 258 people have died from the virus,” Lari said. State TV said it was the country’s highest daily death toll since Dec. 10.
Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki, in a televised news conference, warned about more fatalities in the coming week if Iranians fail to adhere to health protocols. On Saturday, Tehran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country to curb the spread of a fourth wave of the coronavirus. The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces.
Businesses, schools, theaters and sports facilities have been forced to shut and gatherings are banned during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Wednesday in Iran.


Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’
Updated 39 min 27 sec ago

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’
  • Israeli media reports say cyberattack darkened Natanz and damaged the facility

DUBAI: Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, stopped short of directly blaming anyone for the incident. Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding the site.
Many Israeli media outlets offered the same assessment that a cyberattack darkened Natanz and damaged a facility that is home to sensitive centrifuges. While the reports offered no sourcing for the evaluation, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.
If Israel caused the blackout, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East.
“To thwart the goals of this terrorist movement, the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to seriously improve nuclear technology on the one hand and to lift oppressive sanctions on the other hand,” Salehi said, according state TV.
He added: “While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism.”
The IAEA, the United Nations' body that monitors Tehran's atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.
Sunday' developments also complicate efforts by the US, Israel’s main security partner, to re-enter the atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so it can’t pursue a nuclear weapon. As news of the blackout emerged, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin landed Sunday in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Power at Natanz was cut across the facility, which is comprised of above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls, civilian nuclear program spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi earlier told Iranian state TV.
Salehi's comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility. However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran's program.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain.
Israel, Iran’s regional archenemy, has been suspected of carrying out that attack as well as launching other assaults, as world powers negotiate with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.
Iran also blamed Israel for the killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.
Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that a cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said Israel was likely behind the attack, citing Israel’s alleged responsibility for the Stuxnet attacks a decade ago. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility. None of the reports included sources or explanations of how the outlets came to that assessment.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”