The UN’s nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday that Iran has begun enriching uranium at a heavily fortified underground site.
According to a report by the BBC, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that medium-level enrichment had begun at the Fordo plant, in northern Iran.
The existence of the facility near Qom only came to light after it was identified by Western intelligence agencies in September 2009. The BBC noted that while Tehran said it began the project in 2007, the IAEA believes design work started in 2006.
The facility is underground, heavily fortified and protected by the armed forces, making it a very difficult target for air strikes.
A spokeswoman for the IAEA, Gill Tudor, was quoted by the BBC as having said the agency could “confirm that Iran has started the production of uranium enriched up to 20%.”
She added that “all nuclear material in the facility remains under the agency’s containment and surveillance.”
The agency’s confirmation comes a day after officials in the Islamic Republic said the underground uranium enrichment plant will go into operation “in the near future.”
Iran has said it plans to carry out uranium enrichment in the Fordo plant, but insists this is for purely peaceful purposes. The West, meanwhile, argues that Tehran is building a nuclear weapons capacity.
The United States condemned Iran’s uranium enrichment and was quoted by AFP as having said the work at the Fordo site is “a further escalation of their ongoing violations with regard to their nuclear obligations.”