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Iran rebuilding nuclear facility underground

What happened: The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that Iran has started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant in Natanz.

  • In an interview to AP Rafael Grossi, director-general of the IAEA revealed that the Iranians “have started, but it’s not completed. It’s a long process,” but would not give further details, as it’s “confidential information”.
  • According to the IAEA, Iran also continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium.
  • Meanwhile, later this week in the US, Congress will discuss a bipartisan bill to allow the sale of Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to Israel. The MOP is known as a bunker-buster bomb and is capable of penetrating heavily fortified underground infrastructure.

Context: Following the explosion in the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC) at the Natanz nuclear site in July, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear department, said the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with “a more modern, wider and more comprehensive hall in all dimensions in the heart of the mountain near Natanz”.

  • Natanz is considered Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility and the ICAC was designed to assemble thousands of advanced centrifuges each year. According to the US-based think-tank ISIS, its destruction set back Iran’s plans to expand its centrifuge programme by at least a year.
  • Since US President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in May 2018 Iran has been steadily increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium.
  • However, according to the IAEA’s current assessment, Iran currently does not possess a “significant quantity” of highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb.
  • Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that due to JCPOA violations, “Iran will have enough enriched uranium in a few months for two nuclear bombs. And Iran has been working on a new generation of centrifuges, it’s called the IR9, which will multiply Iran’s enrichment capability fifty-fold.”
  • Israeli analysts make the distinction between Iran possessing enough enriched uranium for a bomb and its ability to assemble a nuclear weapon. According to an interview in Yediot Ahronot last month by the outgoing IDF head of intelligence, Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, if Iran decided tomorrow that they were ready to develop a nuclear bomb, it would take another two years.
  • The arrangement for Israel to procure the MOP is thought to be part of the Israeli-US understanding to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, following US plans to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. Israel has sought to acquire the MOP for several years but does not have aircraft capable of using the bomb. It is the heaviest conventional bomb in the world, weighing 14 tons and able to penetrate 60 metres underground. Is it regarded as a vital component if Israel were ever to decide to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Looking forward: US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper will visit Israel tomorrow and meet with Defence Minister Gantz for their third meeting in the last few weeks.

  • The congressional bill, the US-Israel Common Defence Authorisation Act, is cosponsored by Republican and Democratic Representatives is expected to be introduced on Friday

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