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Iran admits to significant damage at nuclear site

What happened: Iran has admitted that the nuclear site in Natanz suffered “significant damage” as a result of an explosion last Thursday.

  • Iran initially downplayed the damage, but Iran’s atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi confirmed yesterday that “there were no casualties as a result of the incident, but significant financial damages were incurred … there were advanced equipment and precision measurement devices at this site that were either destroyed or damaged.”
  • He also confirmed that the damaged building was a centrifuge assembly centre and not an “industrial shed,” as earlier claimed. “More advanced centrifuge machines were intended to be built there,” he said, adding that the damage would “possibly cause a delay in development and production of advanced centrifuge machines in the medium term.”
  • According to the New York Times “a Middle Eastern intelligence official with knowledge of the episode said Israel was responsible for the attack … using a powerful bomb. A member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who was briefed on the matter also said an explosive was used … they do not yet know how or when the explosives were sneaked in, but the attack clearly demonstrated a hole in the facility’s security. The episode will probably accelerate plans to move more of Iran’s most sensitive facilities underground.”
  • Alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz was asked about the strike in an interview yesterday where he replied: “Everyone can suspect us in everything and all the time, but I don’t think that’s correct. Not every event that happens in Iran is necessarily related to us.”
  • On Saturday a Foreign Office spokesperson related to the Iranian nuclear deal, saying: “The UK remains committed to JCPOA, but it is being put at risk by systematic Iranian non-compliance. If Iran wishes to benefit from the JCPOA, it must engage constructively with the Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) process initiated by the E3, and implement its commitments under the deal.”
  • Also yesterday, the head of the IRGC Navy revealed, “Iran has established underground onshore and offshore missile cities all along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman that would be a nightmare for Iran’s enemies.”

Context: According to Kamalvandi, a month after the US withdrew from the nuclear agreement in 2018, Iran began work on developing advanced centrifuges in Natanz following an order from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran is using high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium. Highly enriched uranium can be fuel for an atomic bomb.

  • In June the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accused Iran of continuing to increase its stockpiles of enriched uranium, in violation of the nuclear deal.
  • According to Israel Hayom’s security analyst Yoav Limor, “If the assumption that this was an act of deliberate sabotage is correct, it qualifies as a great success for whoever perpetrated the attack: the intelligence that was gathered about the secret facility; the familiarity with what was in it and what was operating there; and the placing of the bomb in a strategic location to cause maximum damage to the sensitive equipment. The surprised and hesitant reactions out of Iran are a testament not only to their astonishment that the secret facility had been exposed and targeted, but also as to their uncertainty as to who committed the attack and how.”
  • There have been a series of other explosions inside Iran in the past 10 days. On Saturday, there was an explosion at power plant in Ahvaz. On June 26, an explosion occurred east of Tehran near the Parchin military base where Iran develops ballistic missiles. Iranian authorities claimed it was caused by a leak in a gas storage facility in an area outside the base.
  • Natanz was also targeted in 2010 by the Stuxnet computer virus. Stuxnet was jointly developed by IDF Intelligence and the National Security Agency in the US. It damaged the control over the centrifuges and caused them to break down without leaving any trace, and it operated for close to a year before it was discovered.
  • The explosion at Natanz occurred in a building that housed centrifuges which are far more advanced than the centrifuges that were damaged a decade ago.
  • In 2018 Israel’s intelligence broke into a warehouse in Tehran and took half a ton of secret documents relating to Iran’s nuclear project.

Looking ahead: There is heightened concerns that Iran will try and retaliate against Israel. One option could be via Syria, either directly by the IRGC or through their proxy militias. In the last two years they have tried and failed to strike at Israel several times with rockets and UAVs.

  • The UN backed arms embargo on Iran expires on 18 October. The US is hoping to renew the UN Security Council ban on selling conventional arms to Iran.