WASHINGTON — Israeli and American intelligence officials have been watching each day as Iran digs a vast tunnel network just south of the Natanz nuclear production site, in what they believe is Tehran’s biggest effort yet to construct new nuclear facilities so deep in the mountains that they can withstand bunker-busting bombs and cyberattacks.
Though the construction is evident on satellite photographs and has been monitored by groups that track the proliferation of new nuclear facilities, Biden administration officials have never talked about it in public and Israel’s defense minister has mentioned it just once, in a single sentence in a speech last month. In interviews with national security officials in both nations, there clearly were differing interpretations of exactly how the Iranians may intend to use the site, and even how urgent a threat it poses.
But as President Biden prepares for his first trip as president to the Middle East next month — one that will take him to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s two biggest regional rivals — there is little debate that the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is about to flare again.
By most accounts, Iran is closer to being able to produce a bomb today than at any other point in the two-decade-long saga of its nuclear program — even if it is planning, as many national security officials believe, to stop just short of producing an actual weapon. On Mr. Biden’s trip, the question of taking more extreme measures to stop Iran, as the United States and Israel have attempted before, will be high on the agenda.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said earlier this month that the country is just weeks away from being able to enrich enough bomb-grade fuel to make a single nuclear bomb — though fashioning that into a usable weapon could take at least another two years, even by the most alarmist Israeli estimates.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who retired recently as the head of U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw military planning for dealing with Iran, said Tehran, at least in the short term, was trying to leverage its nuclear capabilities as it negotiates with the United States.
“The Iranians’ highest priority is using the nuclear threat to gain concessions, economic and otherwise,” General McKenzie said.
But the facility could eventually prove critical to Iran if the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement continue to run into roadblocks. And for now, at least, efforts to reimpose limits on Iran’s nuclear actions appear all but dead.
The deal, which President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018, limited Tehran’s ability to install new centrifuges and forced it to ship 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country. Mr. Biden’s refusal of Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the list of terrorist organizations, along with a flow of new revenue to Tehran resulting from today’s soaring oil prices, have contributed to the stalemate in the talks.
Now, the Iranians are looking for new pressure points, including the excavation of the mountain plant near Natanz. And over the past week, Iranian authorities have switched off 27 cameras that gave inspectors a view into Iran’s production of fuel.
The decision to cut off the cameras, which were installed as part of the nuclear deal, was particularly worrisome to Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations agency responsible for nuclear inspections. If the cameras remain off for weeks, and it is impossible to track the whereabouts of nuclear materials, “I think this would be a fatal blow” to hopes of reviving the accord, Mr. Grossi said last week.
But this is far more than an inspection dispute. In the eyes of experts, Tehran is getting to the point of becoming what Robert Litwak, who has written extensively on the Iranian program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, called a “nuclear threshold state whose uranium enrichment program creates an inherent option — a hedge — to produce nuclear weapons,” without actually taking the last step.
“Iran’s move at Natanz,” he said of the plant now under construction, “amps up pressure on the United States to reach a new deal by highlighting the risk of a nuclear breakout should diplomacy fail.”
A Tunnel Complex Appears in a Mountainside
For decades, a barren piece of land near Natanz has been the centerpiece of Iran’s nuclear effort. The country has always insisted that its underground “pilot plant” there is working only to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes — the production of nuclear energy. The evidence, some of it stolen by Israel from a warehouse in Tehran, suggests otherwise: that Iran has had plans in place for two decades to construct a bomb, if it concluded that it was in its interest.
Though the pilot plant is underground it is not deeply buried, making it an easy target for a bombing attack — a step Israel has come close to taking on many occasions. But the largest attack on the Natanz site came not from the air but from a combined U.S.-Israeli cyberoperation, code named “Olympic Games,’’ which forced the plant’s nuclear centrifuges, which rotate at supersonic speeds, to spin out of control. During the Bush and Obama administrations, it destroyed hundreds of centrifuges, and set Iran’s program back by a year or more. But it was no silver bullet.
To protect its future programs, Iran began building facilities deep underground. Its biggest success so far is a site called Fordow, built under a mountain on a base run by the Revolutionary Guards. It was exposed in September of 2009, early in the Obama administration, when Iran, realizing that the cover had been blown on its project, hurriedly told the I.A.E.A of its existence before Mr. Obama and France’s president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, could announce the finding.
The new facility is close to Natanz, but it resembles Fordow, which would require the largest bunker-busting bombs in the American inventory to attack. Israel does not yet possess those bunker-busters, or have a means to deliver them.
Biden administration officials say they have been following the construction of the new facility for more than a year, but are not especially alarmed. It is still several years from completion. And they suspect its immediate purpose is to replace a centrifuge assembly facility that Israel blew up in April 2020, in a particularly sophisticated attack that made clear that the Iranian program had been penetrated by insiders, who apparently planted the explosives.
The Biden administration says there is plenty of time to deal with the new facility, through negotiations if possible and by force if necessary. The project is several years from completion, and may be just another form of pressure on American negotiators. Because it is still in a nascent phase, it plays no role in any effort to estimate how long it would take Iran to complete a weapon. Instead, it is viewed as another pressure tactic — a reminder from the Iranians that they will be ready to produce nuclear material on a vast scale, either in coming years or, if the nuclear deal is revived, by 2030, when the production limits negotiated in that agreement would largely expire.
To the Israelis, the tunnel complex is more evidence of a relentless Iranian effort to pursue a bomb capability — and, in the minds of many Israeli military and intelligence leaders, a justification for Israel’s accelerated attacks on the nuclear program and the scientists and engineers behind both Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, took both American and Israeli government officials by surprise in mid-May when he decided to make Israel’s assessment public. “During these very days, 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. The Iranians did not dispute the claim: they had announced, a year ago, that they would build new facilities in response to Israeli attacks.
In recent weeks, attacks and assassinations of Iranians in key military posts have picked up again, though the targets have been less well known than Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, believed to be the guiding intellect behind the Iranian nuclear weapons program, who was killed in an automated ambush Israel conducted in late 2020.
Construction of the new facility, Israeli officials say, began about the same time. Their estimate is that the facility is very large — much larger than needed to replace the assembly facility that was destroyed two years ago.
Several Israeli officials say they believe Iran’s ultimate objective is to use the facility to enrich uranium at a mass scale, using a family of advanced centrifuges that Iran has already started installing, on a test basis, at its older facility nearby. American officials concede the new facility is quite large, and usually well protected.
Still, the United States is not convinced Iran intends to use the facility to enrich uranium. That remains a possibility, given its size, but it is not a certainty, senior American officials said. What is more clear, these officials said, is Iran’s intention to use the facility to construct centrifuges, rebuilding facilities the Israelis have destroyed in recent years.
On the Ground, Worrying Levels of Enrichment
To Biden administration officials, the more immediate problem is that Iran has successfully pushed ahead with its enrichment of uranium to achieve a level of 60 percent purity — far higher than anything they might need for civilian nuclear power plants. And in recent years they have seen a huge investment in missiles, drones and other weapons that are used against Saudi and Israeli targets, they say.
The 60 percent level of uranium enrichment is just short of what is needed to produce a weapon, and as Iran has amassed quantities of it over the past several months, the estimates of how long it would take to get fuel usable for a bomb has dwindled to weeks. Still, American officials also continue to believe that Iran has not taken steps to build an actual weapon — though Israeli officials express doubts.
All that said, former American officials said, Iran has the capability of building a nuclear weapon very quickly. More difficult would be miniaturizing such a device and putting it on a missile.
“They like the idea of hanging the nuclear program over us because it produces a response,” said General McKenzie, who on Wednesday was named executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida. He said the real “crown jewels” for Iran are ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones.
“And that’s where they’ve made huge strides in the last five to seven years,” General McKenzie said, “where they now realistically have overmatch against their neighbors.”
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.