A series of unexplained fires and explosions at several different, geographically separated places in Iran since June 26 have given rise to fresh concerns for the stability of the volatile region.
The explosions and fires
The most serious of these mysterious incidents was on July 2, at Natanz, where Iran’s main nuclear facility is located. Iran initially played down a fire and explosion at the nuclear enrichment plant. Later, it acknowledged that the damage was serious.
Behrous Kamlvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy organisation of Iran, said it would “slow down the development of advanced centrifuges”. He said advanced equipment and precision measurement devices at the site were either destroyed or damaged.
There were reports of another explosion or missile attack on the morning of July 10 at another location.
The other incidents were an explosion at a liquid fuel production facility for ballistic missiles in Prachin near Tehran, and a fire at a power plant in Shiraz, both on June 26; a blast at a medical clinic in Tehran that killed 19 people; a huge fire in Shiraz on July 3; and an explosion and a fire in a power plant in Ahwaz and chlorine gas leak at a petrochemical plant in Mahshahr on July 4.
The causes and the impact
It is not clear if all these incidents were linked, or if all or some of them were the result of sabotage.
But many western analysts are of the view that the explosion in the Natanz site was an attack, caused either by a bomb or through a cyber attack. They also believe that there has been more severe damage at the facility than the Iranians are conceding so far.
The New York Times said it occurred inside the centrifuge assembly centre, where Iran is said to be building its most advanced centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel in greater quantities and faster than its previously known capabilities. The online portal The Hill said the facility had been entirely destroyed, likely by a bomb, and that it would be years before Iran could resume its centrifuge project again. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said the explosion had finished Iran’s nuclear capabilities for “years to come”.
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Who is responsible?
After United States President Donald Trump in May 2018 walked out of the nuclear deal negotiated by the previous Obama Administration to limit Iran’s nuclear activities and allow inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities, western analysts believe that Iran has doubled down on its nuclear enrichment programme.
The Natanz and other incidents come at a time when the Iranian government is under attack from its new hardline parliament for letting the US get away with breaking up the nuclear deal, plus the killing by the US earlier this year of General Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The mystery attacks could also escalate tensions between Iran on the one hand and Israel and the US at a time when the presidential elections are crucially poised, with Trump perceived to be fighting with his back to the wall at this point in the campaign.
A group called Cheetahs of the Homeland has claimed responsibility for the attacks. This group is thought to comprise Iranian exiles, but Westen analysts are increasingly of the view that the attacks are likely the handiwork of Israel, perhaps acting in concert with the US. Israel has not officially responded to such suggestions.
A columnist in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote that if the theory that Israel is behind the attacks is accurate, “then Israel, obviously with the knowledge and backing of the United States, has found a roundabout solution to the problem in light of Iran’s renewed progress with its nuclear program”.
Thus, the columnist pointed out, “Instead of an aerial assault with a low signature, a mysterious explosion occurred and the chain of command behind it is not entirely clear. The damage is the same, but the price might be much lower.” While “this is certainly not the end of the nuclear program, which is intentionally spread over many sites, some of which are deep underground”, the columnist wrote, “a main artery may have been hit”.
If indeed Israel is behind the attack, one view is that it wants to act quickly against Iran while it has a strong ally in Trump in the White House.
How might Iran react?
So far, Iran’s reaction to the Natanz incident has been muted. On July 3, the country’s Supreme National Security Council said it knew the cause of the incident, but for reasons of security, would disclose it at an appropriate time “later”.
When Soleimani, a popular military leader, was killed in a missile attack in Iraq, Iran had vowed to avenge his death. There was speculation that Iran would hit out at American targets or interests in the region, including perhaps in Pakistan. But other than missile attacks on a US base in Iraq, Iran remained restrained — either unable or disinclined to carry out its pledge of “severe revenge”.
But the latest attacks will put pressure on the regime. Soleimani’s killing was seen as the reason for the hardliner sweep of the parliamentary elections. The presidential elections are due next year. Some Iranian officials have said that “if sabotage is proved”, there would be “consequences”.
So far though, Iran seems keen to play down the incidents. This, according to Iran watchers, may be an indication that Iran would not like to burn its bridges with the US at this moment — in the hope perhaps, that it can do business a few months down the line with a more predictable occupant of the White House.
But the next step in this game may well be decided by the US, which has said it will prevent four oil tankers heading to Venezuela with Iranian oil for violation of its sanctions regime.