Tehran, Iran — Iran has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site built to withstand possible airstrikes, a leading hard-line newspaper reported Sunday in another show of defiance against Western pressure to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program.
The operations at the bunker-like facility south of Tehran, reported by the Kayhan daily newspaper, are small in comparison to Iran’s main enrichment site. But the centrifuges at the underground labs are considered more efficient and are shielded from aerial surveillance and protected against airstrikes by up to 300 feet of mountain rock.
Uranium enrichment is at the core of the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies fear Iran could use its enrichment facilities to develop high-grade nuclear material for warheads.
Iran, which claims it only seeks nuclear reactors for energy and research, has sharply increased its threats and military posturing against stronger pressures, including U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank in attempts to complicate its ability to sell oil.
A senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard force was quoted as saying Tehran’s leadership has decided to order the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic oil route, if the country’s petroleum exports are blocked. Revolutionary Guard ground forces also staged war games in eastern Iran in an apparent display of resolve against U.S. forces just over the border in Afghanistan.
Iranian officials have issued similar threats, but this is the strongest statement yet by a top commander in the security establishment.
“The supreme authorities ... have insisted that if enemies block the export of our oil, we won’t allow a drop of oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. This is the strategy of the Islamic Republic in countering such threats,” Revolutionary Guard deputy commander Ali Ashraf Nouri was quoted as saying by another newspaper, the Khorasan daily.
The latest statements are certain to ramp up tensions with the U.S. and its allies, which are trying to increase pressure on Iran to punish it for its disputed nuclear program.
For the moment, however, U.S. officials are seeking stronger diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran rather than increasing threats of military action. A number of experts say Iran is unlikely to close the strait because that could hurt Iran as much as the West.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Iran is laying the groundwork for making nuclear weapons someday but is not yet building a bomb. Panetta reiterated U.S. concerns about a unilateral strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying the action could trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces in the region.
“We have common cause here” with Israel, he said. “And the better approach is for us to work together.”