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Middle East

UN nuclear inspectors in Iran to visit site

A team of UN inspectors arrived today in Iran to visit a recently revealed, though still unfinished, uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom to verify it is for peaceful purposes.

The revelation last month by Iran of the facility's existence, known as Fordo, raised international suspicion over the extent and aim of Tehran's nuclear program.

But Iran says that by reporting the existence of the site voluntarily to the UN's nuclear watchdog, it "pre-empted a conspiracy" against Tehran by the US and its allies who were hoping to present the site as evidence that Iran was developing its nuclear program in secret.

Iran insists its nuclear program serves to generate power and denies allegations it is trying to make nuclear weapons.

The delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency is led by Herman Nackaerts, Director of IAEA's Division Of Operations Department Of Safeguards. The inspectors are expected to stay three days in Iran.

The Fordo uranium enrichment site, Iran's second, is said to be in the arid mountains near the holy city of Qom, inside a heavily guarded, underground facility. It is located about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Qom.

Iran says the facility won't be operational for another 18 months.

The small-scale site is meant to house no more than 3,000 centrifuges — much less than the estimated 8,000 machines at Natanz, Iran's known industrial-scale enrichment facility. Still, the enriching machines in Qom facility will produce nuclear fuel, which could possibly be further enriched into material for atomic warheads.

Iran says it has built the facility inside a mountain next to a military site to protect its nuclear activities in case of an attack by the US or Israel.

A recent satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye shows a well-fortified facility built into a mountain about 20 miles northeast of Qom, with ventilation shafts and a nearby surface-to-air missile site, according to defense consultancy IHS Jane's, which did the analysis of the imagery. The image was taken in September.

GlobalSecurity.org analyzed images from 2005 and January 2009 when the site was in an earlier phase of construction and believes the facility is not underground but was instead cut into a mountain. It is constructed of heavily reinforced concrete and is about the size of a football field — large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges used to refine uranium.

Iranian officials say the site was selected after a careful study by experts. They say it was formerly an ammunition depot.