Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility fire raises questions

The Natanz nuclear plant lost a building when fire tore through it at 2:06 a.m. local time Thursday. Satellite images beefed up the photos from ground level that slowly light emitting diode Iranian officials to switch from calling the damage at the facility “limited” to “significant.”
The plant includes a florid history: It was the target of Israel’s Stuxnet cyber attack in 2010, an attack experts believe was completed by Israel and the United States, and a focus of the uranium enrichment activity Iran has restarted at a higher level since the JCPOA (or nuclear deal) finally collapsed a year ago. This makes its even partial damage hard to simply dismiss as a broken generator in summer time heat.

The fire came in the middle of some unexplained incidents at other facilities. A massive blast hit near the town of Parchin and its military complex last month. Another explosion hit the Zargan power plant in Ahvaz over the week-end and hours later, a chlorine gas leak made dozens ill in southeast Iran. There is any such thing as coincidence, and sanctions mean maintenance issues may be more frequent. But the pattern just added to the speculation around Natanz.

Iran’s on-the-record response — which admitted nothing bar claiming to know the “main cause” — perhaps was the most telling, that it could detail the reason when it suited. You might assess that a government dealing with economic difficulties, a persistent pandemic and crippling sanctions, might have preferred to sweep this incident underneath the carpet, were it just incompetence or an accident. Instead, it has chosen to amplify and prolong the suspicions.

A similar pause was applied in October when an Iranian tanker, the Sabiti, was apparently hit by missiles after having a long, escalatory series of standoffs and explosions against Saudi, Gulf and Western assets in the Gulf.

Iran was able to diffuse that upsurge in tension — which came after an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil fields that Tehran was accused of but denied — by letting slide this possible retaliatory move by opponents in the region.

Is Iran doing the same here, and obfuscating whom it intends the culprit so it could possibly get a handle on coronavirus first? Is it unsure what happened? Or simply giving out the message it knows who’s to blame and how they did it, to avoid them from trying a repeat attack?

Right on cue, Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister and alternate prime minister said on Sunday: “Not every event that happens inside Iran is necessarily connected to us,” as if to both distance himself from and cozy up to the attack in one single nebulous statement.

Accept, for a speculative moment, the likelihood this was an Israeli act of sabotage successfully executed. Why now? Why there? It would probably have been a minute of opportunity seized — of weak defenses, or even a lucky mole — something Israel could possibly have done, regardless of timing.

“The risk is that these sorts of incidents become the new, dangerous norm,” said Naysan Rafati, a senior Iran analyst at the Crisis Group. “It seems reasonable to assume that whoever was responsible for the incident wanted to, at minimum, delay Tehran and, at best, dissuade it, but the Iranians say they’ll simply rebuild.”

The blast also came at a moment of increased scrutiny of Iran’s renewed enrichment efforts. The JCPOA meant enrichment must be kept to 3.67% — an even purely helpful for research. Iran has said that repeated US sanctions mean its obligations underneath the deal are reduced, and that it could start enriching uranium to 5%, or maybe more. The threshold where material for a weapon becomes at your fingertips is after 20%.

So alarm bells have begun to ring. UN inspectors, the IAEA, have included with the concerns, by accusing Iran of not allowing complete use of two of its nuclear sites and trebling its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

Western officials I’ve spoken to sometimes like to bask in one certainty: that Iran understands the retaliatory consequences for it finding a nuclear weapon would be too devastating to entertain. It is a belief that is, if nothing else, comforting: that the killing of Iran’s most famous military commander, Qasem Soleimani and the economic warfare of sanctions have made Iran’s hardliners less belligerent, and less inclined to match Israel’s nuclear advantage in the turbulent region.

The short-lived yet damaging fire at Natanz takes us no nearer to answering the question of whether Iran wants a bomb. But it does renew focus on Iran’s nuclear activity, both outside and inside the country. Either way, whatever lit the blaze because shed, in addition, it metaphorically switched a light on most importantly of Iran’s other nuclear plants.