Satellite photos show construction at Iran nuclear site

This Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies shows construction at Natanz uranium-enrichment facility that experts believe may be a new, underground centrifuge assembly plant. (AP)
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Updated 29 October 2020

Satellite photos show construction at Iran nuclear site

  • A satellite image Monday shows the site cleared away with what appears to be construction equipment there
  • Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies say they believe the site is undergoing excavation

DUBAI: Iran has begun construction at its Natanz nuclear facility, satellite images released Wednesday show, just as the UN nuclear agency acknowledged Tehran is building an underground advanced centrifuge assembly plant after its last one exploded in a reported sabotage attack last summer.
The construction comes as the US nears Election Day in a campaign pitting President Donald Trump, whose maximum pressure campaign against Iran has led Tehran to abandon all limits on its atomic program, and Joe Biden, who has expressed a willingness to return to the accord. The outcome of the vote likely will decide which approach America takes. Heightened tensions between Iran and the US nearly ignited a war at the start of the year.
Since August, Iran has built a new or regraded road to the south of Natanz toward what analysts believe is a former firing range for security forces at the enrichment facility, images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs show. A satellite image Monday shows the site cleared away with what appears to be construction equipment there.
Analysts from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies say they believe the site is undergoing excavation.
“That road also goes into the mountains so it may be the fact that they’re digging some kind of structure that’s going to be out in front and that there’s going to be a tunnel in the mountains,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the institute who studies Iran’s nuclear program. “Or maybe that they’re just going to bury it there.”
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, last month told state television the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with one “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.”
Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his inspectors were aware of the construction. He said Iran had previously informed IAEA inspectors, who continue to have access to Iran’s sites despite the collapse of the nuclear deal.
“It means that they have started, but it’s not completed. It’s a long process,” Grossi said.
Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, in which Tehran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. When the US ramped up sanctions, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned those limits as a series of escalating incidents pushed the two countries to the brink of war at the beginning of the year.
Iran now enriches uranium to up to 4.5% purity, and according to the last IAEA report, had a stockpile of 2,105 kilograms (2.32 tons). Experts typically say 1,050 kilograms (1.15 tons) of low-enriched uranium is enough material to be re-enriched up to weapons-grade levels of 90% purity for one nuclear weapon.
Iran’s so-called “breakout time” — the time needed for it to build one nuclear weapon if it chose to do so — is estimated now to have dropped from one year under the deal to as little as three months. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, though Western countries fear Tehran could use it to pursue atomic weapons.
Natanz, built underground to harden it against airstrikes, long has been at the center of those fears since its discovery in 2002. Centrifuges there still spin in vast halls under 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete. Air defense positions surround the facility in Iran’s central Isfahan province.
Despite being one of the most-secure sites in Iran, Natanz was targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus — believed to be the creation of the US and Israel — before the nuclear deal.
In July, a fire and explosion struck its advanced centrifuge assembly facility in an incident Iran later described as sabotage. Suspicion has fallen on Israel, despite a claim of responsibility by a previously unheard-of group.
There have been tensions with the IAEA and Iran even at Natanz, with Tehran accusing one inspector of testing positive for explosives last year. However, so far inspectors have been able to maintain their surveillance. something Lewis described as very important.
“As long as they declared to the IAEA in the proper time frame, there’s no prohibition on putting things underground,” he said. “For me, the real red line would be if the Iranians started to stonewall the IAEA.”
For now, it remains unclear how deep Iran will put this new facility. And while the sabotage will delay Iran in assembling new centrifuges, Lewis warned the program ultimately would regroup as it had before and continue accumulating ever-more material beyond the scope of the abandoned nuclear deal.
“We buy ourselves a few months,” he said. “But what good is a few months if we don’t know what we’re going to use it for?”


Egypt seeks to free citizens kidnapped by pirates off Nigerian coast

Updated 03 December 2020

Egypt seeks to free citizens kidnapped by pirates off Nigerian coast

  • Maria Samir, Samir’s sister, said her brother was last contacted as he was about to move from Nigeria to Cameroon

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said it was coordinating with Nigerian authorities to free two of its citizens after they were kidnapped by pirates.

According to media reports, Saad Shawky and Kyrolos Samir were taken while they were on board a cargo ship off the coast of Nigeria’s southernmost state of Bayelsa.

There are also three Lebanese, four Indians and a Cameroonian in the crew.

The ministry said it had contacted the Egyptian consulate in Abuja about the circumstances and with the latest updates, and that instructions had been issued “to communicate with all officials at the highest level to follow up on ensuring the safety of kidnapped Egyptians.”

Egyptian media reported the two men were on board a Lebanese cargo ship called “Milan-1” that was heading from Nigeria to Cameroon. They also said the ship was owned by a Lebanese national, Adnan El-Kot.

El-Kot said in statements that he had rented the ship to a man called Tavo Lawrence and that the vessel was raising the flag of Saint Kitts. He learned about the kidnapping last Thursday, receiving a call from a Thuraya mobile phone from the pirates who demanded a $1.5 million ransom to release the ship.

The ransom dropped to $300,000, and El-Kot explained that he had told the kidnappers that the ship had been rented to another person living in Nigeria after he made sure all the ship crew were safe.

Maria Samir, Samir’s sister, said her brother was last contacted as he was about to move from Nigeria to Cameroon.

She said in an interview that contact with him was lost a few hours after he moved from Nigeria, adding that it naturally happened due to being in the open seas. She was following up the ship’s route through an app that revealed the vessel had stopped in the middle of the sea and did not move.

She said her brother graduated from university a year ago and that it was his first job for six months. She added he was working on a ship on the Red Sea route and moved to work on board “Milan-1.”

Sherouk Shawky, who is Shawky’s sister, said: “My brother and his colleague Kyrolos Samir have been working together onboard the ship for two years and a half.”

She said her brother left Nigeria en route to Cameroon and they had last contacted each other last Wednesday.

She added: “By Saturday, as he didn't contact us, we became extremely worried about him since the route from Nigeria to Cameroon is only two days. So we contacted Adnan El-Kot, the ship owner, who told us that pirates from Nigeria kidnapped the ship's 10-member crew, which includes officers, engineers and cooks. He said the pirates kidnapped 10 crew members and left one to inform Adnan of the kidnapping.”