As the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, the world has rightfully kept a close eye on Iran’s nuclear program. It is thus no surprise that all eyes were on Teheran when news broke several days ago that an incident had occurred in an Iranian nuclear facility. The details, however, are nebulous at this point, even though Iran has confirmed the incident.
Damage to Above-Ground Building
At the center of the incident is an above-ground building. According to the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency (AEOI), it was a shed under construction that was still empty. The agency’s spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, was filmed by state television in front of the building, that he called “damaged”. There were no injuries and no interruption in uranium enrichment. Radioactive substances were also not released. A team of experts from the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency was currently investigating the cause of the fire.
Natanz’s nuclear facility is located about 250 kilometres south of the capital, Tehran. Here, uranium is enriched using centrifuges. According to the IAEA, Iran is currently enriching uranium to 4.5 per cent fissile material, which is more than is permitted in the nuclear agreement. However, a purity of 90 percent is required for nuclear weapons.
Evidence Suggests Explosion at Facility
Photos and video recordings of the charred building suggest an explosion. The brick walls have bulged in several places. Metal doors are torn off their hinges, parts of the tin roof hangover the facade, sooty beams protrude. All of this can only be explained plausibly with a pressure wave that must have started inside the building.
Nevertheless, a technical defect cannot be ruled out as the cause, but the building may not have been empty, as the Iranians claim. It shows striking similarities to the building that the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) identified as a facility on satellite images in 2016, in which Iran assembles and balances new centrifuges. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspected the building before machines were installed.
It is thus not a surprise that Iran’s version of the event has been disputed already. According to the New York Times, for instance, a Middle East intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told the paper that the explosion was caused by an explosive device installed in the facility. The explosion had thus destroyed a large part of the above-ground parts of the plant, in which new centrifuges — sensitive devices that rotate at supersonic speeds — were destroyed far before they were put into operation.
Moreover, an e-mail sent a letter of confession from a previously unknown group, “Homeland Cheetahs”, who described themselves as dissidents from the security apparatus. It contained information about the alleged attack — such as the plant affected. The letter was received by the BBC‘s Persian service hours before the Iranian incident became public.
Accordingly, there are said to have been further attacks that the regime is trying to hide. It may thus not be a coincidence, that the Parchin military site, 30 kilometres from Tehran, was shaken one week ago by a severe explosion also. According to official information, a gas tank had exploded. However, satellite images show that the explosion occurred in an area that is part of a ballistic missile production facility owned by the EU and US sanctioned Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group. Here too the cause is unclear, as is the extent of the damage that has occurred.
However, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on Friday that an Israeli cyberattack was responsible for the explosion, that, according to the paper’s source, is expected to set back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by two months.
In the past, Iran’s nuclear and missile programs have repeatedly been the target of American and Israeli intelligence agencies, including the Stuxnet virus, and also targeted by some Arab and Western countries. An inside job or an attack conducted by foreign adversaries are thus both conceivable.