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What is Iran Hiding About the Explosion Near a Nuclear Facility?

July 4, 2020
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
A Supreme National Security Council spokesman said the cause of the explosion is not yet being announced due to security considerations
A Supreme National Security Council spokesman said the cause of the explosion is not yet being announced due to security considerations
The development of the Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center was one of the first steps taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the early days after US withdrawal from the JCPOA
The development of the Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center was one of the first steps taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the early days after US withdrawal from the JCPOA

The Islamic Republic of Iran has formally stated that the cause of the accident at the Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center in Natanz has been determined. But according to a spokesperson for the Supreme National Security Council, it will not be announced yet due to some security considerations.

The explosion at the Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center, which is located in a warehouse near the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Center, took place at midnight on Thursday, July 2. Unlike Iran's main nuclear enrichment facility, this center is located above ground and lacks radioactive materials because it is dedicated to assembling the uranium enrichment machines, and the incident therefore cannot lead to nuclear contamination. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that no nuclear material was found at the facility.

 

The Construction of the Center

The development of the Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center was one of the first moves made by the Islamic Republic in the early days after US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the return of US sanctions. Twenty-seven days after the formal end of the JCPOA, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: "The Iranian nation and government cannot tolerate being both in sanctions and in a nuclear imprisonment. The Atomic Energy Organization must urgently get ready to reach the 190,000-SWU uranium enrichment within in the framework of the JCPOA and provide other arrangements, to begin tomorrow."

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, arrived at the centrifuge assembly center on June 6, 2018, two days after Khamenei's order to increase the site’s uranium enrichment capacity, and expressed hope that the assembly halls would be completed within a month.

"After the order of the Supreme Leader to prepare the ground for the construction of this center, activities got under way quickly and seriously, and within 48 hours, the place you see now became ready," Salehi told Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. “In the centrifuge assembly halls, rotors and other equipment are being tested accurately, and in a larger hall that is being built next to this hall and will be completed in a month’s time, there is the capacity to fully control up to 60 centrifuges. The place we are in now was an abandoned warehouse."

 

Ten Years After Stuxnet, Was This a Targeted Attack?

Two years after that command and the actions taken by the Atomic Energy Organization, one of the halls of the Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center has exploded.

In the early hours of the incident, there were some speculation over the possibility of an air strike or a drone strike. But after the photos were published, it became clear that the source of the explosion was inside the building.

Reuters quoted three Iranian officials as saying that the incident had been due to a cyber-attack on the center. No country or known group has claimed responsibility for the blast – except for one previously-unknown outfit, with no clear track record, called Yuzpalangan-e Vatan [Homeland Cheetahs]. This group claimed in a statement sent to the media that it was among the opposition members who had access to the country’s security apparatus, and said it was responsible for the Natanz bombing.

Given that Iran calls the blast a "security" incident, the likelihood that it was an accidental or unintentional incident seems small. No one was present at the time of the conflagration as it was midnight, probably showing that the perpetrators were not aiming for a high-casualty operation.

The explosion at the center also took place on the tenth anniversary of the Stuxnet virus, which was used in an attempt to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program at the time by infecting computers at Iran's nuclear facilities. Stuxnet surfaced in Iran at the height of international sanctions against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, when Iran began producing 20 percent enriched uranium. The virus, which was launched at the same time as international sanctions, aimed to hinder the acceleration of the Islamic Republic's progress in the enrichment program by buffeting the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Center.

Ten years after Stuxnet was identified and the height of international sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Iran's centrifuge assembly center has witnessed an explosion that Iranian officials have dubbed a "security incident." The blast again coincided with unprecedented US sanctions against Iran's nuclear program and the IAEA having expressed concern concern over the Islamic Republic's declining co-operation, signaling the re-emergence of both behind-the-scenes and open pressure on Iran to slow down its nuclear program.

Officials in the Islamic Republic, which has traditionally blamed Israel and the United States, and most recently Saudi Arabia, for any such events, have refused to formally accuse other countries. One state-run media outlet has published an article – without a byline – recalling the recent explosion of a gas tank near the Parchin military facility, pointing to the new resolution issued by the IAEA’s Board of Governors and the US efforts to extend the Security Council's arms embargo against Iran.

The piece says: "The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far tried to defend its principles and national interests with intelligence and strategic tact, and has prevented the escalation of the crisis and the formation of unpredictable conditions. But if there are any signs of the hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the United States, crossing the red lines of the Islamic Republic, which is the security, interests and peace of the Iranian people, then the new situation needs to be reconsidered."

Less than 48 hours after the blast at Iranian Centrifuge Assembly Center, Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote a letter to the EU’s foreign policy chief criticizing the role of the three European countries in the recent resolution of the IAEA Board of Governors, and asking them to activate the JCPOA’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism.

Iran unilaterally reactivated the mechanism once the United States withdrew from the JCPOA, which eventually led to a gradual reduction in its commitments under the JCPOA. The country is no longer following any of the operational provisions of the JCPOA and only implements its supervision sections.

Requesting the reactivation of the Dispute Resolution Mechanism in the JCPOA could mean a prelude to a reduction in Iran's supervisory cooperation with the IAEA – and a new round of crises.

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What is Iran Hiding About the Explosion Near a Nuclear Facility?