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Iran tunnels raise questions among officials

Joby Warrick Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The sudden flurry of digging seen in recent satellite photos of a mountainside in central Iran might have passed for ordinary road tunneling. But the site is the backyard of Iran’s most ambitious and controversial nuclear facility, leading U.S. officials and independent experts to reach another conclusion: It appears to be the start of a major tunnel complex inside the mountain.

The question is, why? Worries have been stoked by the presence nearby of fortified buildings where uranium is being processed. Those structures in turn are being connected by roads to Iran’s nuclear site at Natanz, where the country recently started production of enriched uranium in defiance of international protests.

As a result, photos of the site are being studied by governments, intelligence agencies and nuclear experts, all asking the same question: Is Iran attempting to thwart future military strikes against its nuclear program by placing key parts of it in underground bunkers?

The construction has raised concerns at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog that monitors Iran’s nuclear program. On Friday, an IAEA spokeswoman confirmed that the agency has broached the subject with Iranian officials. “We have been in contact with the Iranian authorities about this, and we have received clarifications,” said Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate.

Calls to Iran’s U.N. mission in Vienna were not returned. IAEA officials plan to press the issue further in a previously scheduled visit to Tehran later this week, according to informed sources.

“The tunnel complex certainly appears to be related to Natanz,” said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nonprofit group that provided copies of the photos to the Washington Post. “We think it is probably for storage of nuclear items.”

U.S. officials at several military and intelligence-gathering agencies said they were aware of the construction and were watching it closely, though none would comment publicly or speculate on the intended purpose of the tunnels.

A tunnel complex would reduce options for a pre-emptive military strike to knock out Iran’s nuclear program, according to U.S. officials who closely follow Iran’s nuclear activities. It also could further heighten tensions between the Bush administration and the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said he is committed to pursuing a peaceful use of nuclear power.

In response to suggestions by Vice President Dick Cheney and others that the United States might consider using force to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Ahmadinejad has shrouded the program in additional secrecy and threatened to suspend cooperation with international nuclear inspectors.

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