Iran never ended critical nuclear weapons work at a controversial underground military bunker that remains operational to this day and able to "enrich uranium to weapons grade" levels. That is according to a new watchdog report that has reignited calls for the Trump administration to close loopholes that have permitted the Islamic Republic to continue its most contested nuclear research.
The new report, issued by the Institute for Science and International Security, confirms suspicions long held by the international community that Iran never dismantled its Fordow research site, as it was required to do under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. The findings have further fueled concerns about Iran's march towards nuclear weapons, particularly in light of the country's recent threats to enrich uranium, the key component in a bomb, to levels approaching 20 percent purity.
The latest evidence of Iran's continued weapons research has reignited a battle between congressional Iran hawks and the Trump administration, which continues to provide Tehran with a series of sanctions waivers permitting it to continue work at Fordow. Hardliners in Congress have called for an immediate end to these waivers in light of Iran's efforts to blow past restrictions on the amount of highly enriched uranium it stockpiles inside the country.
"The Fordow uranium enrichment facility has never been repurposed, as promised in the JCPOA," the acronym used to refer to the nuclear deal, according to the latest watchdog report. "Everything required to enrich uranium to weapons grade could be quickly reconstituted in the underground portion of the facility."
"Fordow is potentially part of Iran's current threats to progressively go to higher enrichment levels and increase its stocks of enriched uranium, and if conducted there, Fordow's underground tunnel complex is fortified to withstand aerial bombardment," the report states. "Fordow now includes semi-indigenous nuclear equipment production and potentially illicit procurement at the newly expanded support area, the former which was not likely intended by the JCPOA, and the latter which is prohibited."
Secret documents seized from Iran by Israel corroborate evidence that Tehran sought, from at least 2002, to produce weapon-grade uranium to create one to two nuclear weapons per year.
"There is no doubt it could be reconstituted to fulfill that purpose," the report concluded.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) said the latest report on Iran's work at Fordow should compel the Trump administration to stop issuing waivers, which have permitted continued nuclear work at the site.
"Today's report once again demonstrates that the catastrophic Obama Iran nuclear deal created enormous danger for Americans and our allies," Cruz said in a statement. "Fordow is a military bunker the Ayatollahs dug out of the side of a mountain so they could build nuclear bombs."
"Under the nuclear deal, it was supposed to be converted but it never was. Instead, Iran used the time and the billions they received from the deal to expand the facility, possibly in violation of restrictions in the deal itself," Cruz said. "The Trump administration should immediately cancel the civil-nuclear waivers it has been issuing, which allow Iran to continue building up Fordow and other nuclear sites."
A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon the administration will not stand by as Iran marches closer to the nuclear redline.
"The Iranian regime uses its nuclear program to extort the international community and threaten regional security," the official said, speaking only on background. "Nuclear brinksmanship will not strengthen Iran's position, but instead lead to further isolation and pressure."
U.S. officials do not recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium "at any level," the official said, hinting at possible revocation of the sanctions waivers that have allowed work to continue at Fordow.
"The world's top sponsor of terrorism can never be allowed to enrich uranium at any level," the official said. "We will continue to impose maximum pressure on the regime until it abandons its destabilizing behavior, including proliferation-sensitive work."
"Iran should realize that negotiating leverage will no longer be measured in kilograms of uranium or dollars per barrel, but rather in its willingness to end its destabilizing activities, including by abandoning a path to nuclear weapons," the official said.
One veteran Republican congressional official who works on Iran issues told the Free Beacon that GOP hawks on Capitol Hill are starting to openly question the Trump administration's commitment to upholding tough sanctions on Tehran.
"This is becoming clownish. The President already said that new sanctions are coming. Every day there's a new story about how Iran is violating the deal," the source said, speaking only on background. "People up here are starting to ask who inside the administration is holding up the response."
Meanwhile, international nuclear inspectors on Thursday confirmed that Iran has been illicitly housing radioactive materials. This is the same facility that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed last year as a key source for Iran's nuclear buildup.
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated since the downing of an American drone, Iranian leaders have vowed to continue openly breaching nuclear enrichment restrictions.
"Enhancing nuclear enrichment levels to 20 percent could well be the next move by Iran in case Europe failed to provide Tehran with the promised merits under the nuclear deal," a spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization confirmed to the country's state-controlled media.
"The level of Iran's [uranium] enrichment has exceeded 3.67 percent and at present the purity level of the produced materials is nearly 4.5 percent," the official was quoted as saying.
Iran is pressuring European nations to create backdoor financial vehicles meant to skirt the toughest U.S. sanctions, a demand U.S. officials have described as nuclear extortion.
UPDATE 5:40 P.M.: This has been updated with comment from a State Department spokesman received after publication.