It was initially an incident presented as minor. Iran announced Thursday morning that a “nuclear-free warehouse” at its Natanz plant, the country’s main uranium enrichment site (kept secret until 2002, editor’s note), had been the victim of a minor “accident”. This one, which had caused only financial and material damage, but no pollution, and had not made any victim, had not disturbed the activities of the factory, underlined Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (OIEA).
However, the images of Iranian television, reporting only slight damage in front of a damaged brick building, were quickly denied by satellite images broadcast by opposition channels abroad. We can see a hangar completely ripped by the flames. “It appears that it was a massive explosion, not a fire, that affected this recent building intended for the assembly and testing of new generation centrifuges,” explains the Point Fabian Hinz, associate researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, based in Monterey, in the United States.
These photos have fueled the suspicion of the Iranian population, as an unprecedented wave of spectacular explosions hit the four corners of the country for ten days (an industrial gas tank north of Tehran on June 25, a power plant in Shiraz on the 26th, a clinic in the capital on June 30th, and another power plant in Ahvaz on July 4th, note). And seventy-two hours after the accident, the scale of the disaster was finally admitted by the authorities. Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency (OIEA), announced on Sunday that the incident at the Natanz nuclear power plant had caused “significant damage” and “could slow” the Iran’s production of advanced centrifuges. Under the Iranian Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) signed in 2015 between Iran and the major powers (United States, China, Russia, France, United Kingdom and Germany), the Islamic Republic had committed to use only a limited number of so-called “first generation” centrifuges.
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But since the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the text in May 2018 and the re-establishment of unprecedented American sanctions against Tehran (while Iran was living up to its commitments according to reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, editor’s note) , the Islamic Republic has freed itself from a series of prohibited measures such as the production of enriched uranium and research and development activities, including the development of modern centrifuges. In his last report published on June 5, the international nuclear gendarme estimates that the Iranian stock of enriched uranium exceeds by almost eight times the limit authorized by the agreement. Iran says it does not wish to acquire the atomic bomb and stresses that all of its recent decisions are reversible and aim only to increase the pressure on the other signatories of the JCPOA in order to lighten the weight of the American sanctions which stifle its economy.
Accidental track discarded
“All of Iran’s actions are reversible except the know-how acquired in research and development, which is never lost, which worries the West,” said researcher Fabian Hinz. “Thus, the destruction of this building makes it possible to prevent the assembly and testing of modern centrifuges, and therefore to slow down the Iranian research and development program without causing a significant escalation with Iran.”
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Thursday, a few hours before the Iranian authorities announced the incident, Persian-language BBC claims to have received press release claim from the “Cheetahs of the Fatherland”, a group claiming to be “dissidents within the Iranian security apparatus”. But in Tehran, doubts quickly focused on Iran’s historic “enemies”: the United States and Israel. In an unusual tone editorial published the same day, the official news agency Irna said that the Islamic Republic’s “strategy” of “preventing any escalation” would be “fundamentally reviewed” if “hostile countries, in particular the Zionist regime and the United States [franchissaient] the red lines set by Iran ”. And the following day, the trail of an accident seems to have been definitively ruled out, when the Supreme National Security Council, the highest decision-making body in the country, said that it had precisely established the causes of the incident without being able to disclose them for the moment “for certain security reasons”.
All weekend, eyes have been on Israel. Regularly threatened with destruction by Iranian officials, the Hebrew state, which remains one of the greatest perpetrators of the JCPOA, has always said that it would not hesitate to do justice to itself if the international community failed to prevent Iran from acquiring the atomic bomb. Already in 2007, Mossad and the CIA had developed Stuxnet, a computer worm introduced into the Iranian factory in Natanz by an Iranian agent working for the Netherlands. Revealed in 2010, the computer attack damaged nearly a thousand centrifuges and delayed the Iranian nuclear program by around twenty months.
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The hypothesis of an sabotage of Israeli origin is all the more plausible since Israel and Iran have been waging a veritable secret war for several months. Scalded by the continuous Israeli strikes since 2013 against Iranian positions in Syria, which have left dozens dead in its ranks, the Islamic Republic is said to be behind the cyber attack that struck the Israeli water network on April 24 and 25. In retaliation, the Hebrew State reportedly paralyzed the port terminal at Shahid Rajaee in southern Iran on May 9, again using a computer attack.
Asked this weekend about a possible Israeli implication, Benny Gantz, the new Israeli Minister of Defense, provided an at least convoluted answer. “Not every incident that happens in Iran has to do with us,” he said on Israeli military radio. “It is better not to mention our actions in Iran,” added Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli Minister for Foreign Affairs, during a conference organized by the daily newspapers. Maariv and the Jerusalem Post. “Officially, the strategy of ambiguity is de rigueur in Israel, with the aim of not incurring reprisals from enemies or political pressure”, explains to Point Ely Karmon, researcher in strategic issues and counterterrorism at the interdisciplinary center of Herzliya.
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But why strike now? “There is growing concern among the Israelis about the progress of Iranian uranium enrichment activities, as noted in the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency,” added the specialist. “If it is Israel that is behind the attack, it could also be explained by the fact that Donald Trump may be living his last months in the White House and that the presence of a US president very favorable to Israel is important in the event of an Iranian response. “
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This Monday, New york times lifted part of the veil surrounding the case, writing that Israel was indeed behind the Natanz explosion. Quoting a Middle Eastern intelligence official, the American daily said that a powerful bomb had been used, a detail confirmed to the newspaper by an Iranian Revolutionary Guard, member of the ideological army of the Islamic Republic. “If Israel is really behind this explosion, then it is no longer a cold war, but a real declaration of war on Iran, in a context where it has already murdered Iranian scientists in Tehran, Iranian fighters in Syria and carried out cyberattacks against the Islamic Republic, “said Hamzeh Safavi, professor of political science and member of the scientific council of the University of Tehran. “If Israel is responsible, this attack calls for a firm, proportional and legitimate response from Iran to this violation of its national sovereignty, to dissuade it from doing so again in the future. “
In 2010, the damage inflicted by the Stuxnet virus in the Natanz power station had decided the Islamic Republic to invest massively in the cyberwar sector. To target in turn, a few years later, Israel and the United States.