It all began with a heads-up from a Twitter OSINT follower: "Hey you should look here 32.767749°, 50.887684° tunnel related to Iran Nukes."
At first glance, the site is in a remote location 130km from Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), 75km from Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF), and 190km from Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility (IR-40).
Initial Imagery analysis shows a well-secured compound of an industrial type, surrounded by high walls and fences as well as a perimeter berm. The site has effluent ponds and its own electric substation to convert high voltage to medium voltage indicating that this is a big energy consumer.
The tunnel portal is 140 meters long with an 80 meter reinforced concrete access sleeve, a large volume of excavation spoils, its azimuth is straight into the mountain. The staging area is not full of temporary prefab structures but real buildings. No ventilation shaft could be spotted in the mountain nor any exit.
Construction is antecedent to 2009 and still very active indicating that either the project has stalled, or it is of a subsequent size.
Some analysts would wrap the analysis summing it up with a brief punchy statement: "Satellite imagery shows unreported tunnel construction activity in a secured compound near Esfahan, Iran", and there is nothing wrong with that statement, it is based on visual facts on the ground, it is accurate and if the task was to depict what is seen then it is sufficient.
It is the occasion to remind that Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) although being extremely advanced and appealing is only one discipline inside the traditional Intelligence Cycle and is not an Intel Swiss Knife for an assessment. It sounds trivial but judging by the number of inaccurate reports and so-called Intelligence Analysis in the media and social media it isn't.
Back to our site near Esfahan.
One of The Intel Lab arrows in its quiver is the systematic use of Civil Engineering Intelligence (CIVINT) in adjunction to IMINT. CIVINT tells you the story of how it was made, what was the purpose, which materials were used, and what were the constraints.
Further investigation of imageries of the site and around shows trenches and pipe laying, adequate to such an industrial size facility. The pipes are steel pipes, 12-meter-long standard segments, approximate outside diameter 1600 to 1800 mm.
Two 85m x 50m structures inside the complex show piping in and out and seem to be half-buried in the ground, the piping seems to lead to the central building with rectangular structures or tanks. This compound is a big water consumer it appears.
Why would a water station be so highly secured including a tunnel to the mountain with no exit around? One would say it is a highly strategic site because wherever there is a tunnel there is a strategic asset. Is it Nuclear related? Is it cooling the rods of a secret nuclear reactor? Are the ponds treating radioactive effluents?
The answer is 10 km from this site, on the bank of the Zayanderood river.
Recent satellite imageries do not show an apparent connection between those two sites unless you dig in the past. Tthen you would see a TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine) making its way up to our first site. A 10-kilometer tunnel, 4.5 wide tunnel accommodating two parallel water pipelines with intermediate underground pumping stations.
So no Uranium, no missiles, no nukes, and no bling-bling, just tap water, the most strategic asset on Planet Earth.
So was that analysis a complete waste of time? All the Civil Engineering mumbo jumbo just a marketing tool?
In a very simplistic manner, Civil Engineering combined with IMINT teaches how to differentiate a military tunnel from a civilian tunnel, not to see evil everywhere for some people.
In this case, it teaches the complexity of the Golab Water Transfer Tunnel, designing it and building it, the level of knowledge needed to hand it over to a government. Civil Engineering on the infrastructure's aspect teaches about the qualitative and quantitative side of national resources invested in that kind of project. Civil Engineering also contributes to grasp the mismanagement and the priorities in national resources and critical infrastructures.
The goal of the Golab Water Transfer Tunnel is to supply a population of 5.5 million people who lack drinking water in Esfahan province in 2021. That is a priceless piece of intelligence to integrate into a global assessment.
In an era of fake news, inaccurate reports, lack of knowledge, the race for more followers, and exposure it is essential to stick to factual evidence, science, and responsible conduct.
No, not all tunnels in Iran are directly related to its nuclear program.
Itay Bar-Lev is Managing Director and Chief Analyst at The Intel Lab