Questions and ambiguities about the source of the burst of sound and orange light seen on the evening of Thursday, June 25, 2020 in the eastern skies of Tehran continue, increasing in the hours following the mysterious event.
On Thursday evening, social media users posted pictures of the spectacle and shortly afterward a video of the blast surfaced, confirming an explosion or arson had taken place close to a military area.
Davoud Abdi, spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces, said at the beginning of the day that the source of the explosion had been the ignition of a "gas tank” in the Parchin area.
Parchin Military Complex is considered one of the most important and secretive zones related to the nuclear activity of the Islamic Republic. The complex, located southeast of Tehran, has previously been mentioned in reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2011, the IAEA raised the possibility that the Islamic Republic was conducting an atomic bomb detonation test on the site.
The area is scattered with barracks and military bases. In 2014, a large fire broke out on the complex. At the time, the Department of Defense said a fire had broken out at an ammunition center, but did not provide further details and did not answer subsequent questions on the matter.
Now another explosion has taken place about which little is known, and officials have similarly not disclosed the details of the incident. Only the cameras of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting have been allowed onto the scene, and what has been filmed and subsequently broadcast is very limited and questionable.
In the IRIB’s report, the reporter claimed that three gas tanks, each with a capacity of 5,000 liters, had exploded on Thursday evening due to a leak. No serious damage was reportedly done to the tanks. In this case, the most important question that remains is how an explosion of 15,000 liters of gas did not damage them. A scientific study published in the Revolutionary Guards’ magazine Military Medicine showed that the explosion of a 26kg gas cylinder can cause severe damage to a surrounding area with a radius of 25 meters.
Another question the Islamic Republic and military officials have so far not answered is exactly in which military zone the blast took place, and which section of the armed forces is responsible for it.
Hossein Deliran, a military correspondent in Iran who has close ties to the Revolutionary Guards, is among those who has speculated about the cause online. He quoted Israeli social media users as having said that the blast was caused by an Israeli cyber attack on the software infrastructure of Iran's armed forces.
Some social media users on Persian-language platforms, who specialize in military issues, have been trying to determine the approximate location of the blast since the early hours of Friday. Their research shows the explosion took place in an area near the Khojir aerospace facilities.
Sabotage, human error, nuclear testing, and premeditated action are all possible causes of the explosion. In the past three months, several significant fires have broken out that led to the destruction of both natural resources and some facilities, which some Iranian officials believe were intentionally caused. Judicial officials have warned that the perpetrators of any proven arsons could be sentenced to death.
It is possible that the explosion in eastern Tehran was caused by a sabotage operation, but it does not appear that security and military officials are willing to make such a statement, even if it is certain. This is understandable, as it would reveal the vulnerability of military centers and their low security.
Human error is also a possibility – not dissimilar to the “mistake” announced by the Revolutionary Guards commanders earlier this year that caused the downing of a Ukrainian airliner in the skies of Tehran.
Some online commentators have also raised the possibility of testing of an atomic bomb. Given the sheer extent of destruction such an event would cause, this does not seem likely. Another questionable suggestion is that the blast was a premeditated plan by the Islamic Republic to neutralize the effects of nuclear activities in the area.
Given the tight control over the armed forces in Iran and the need to keep such incidents low-level, as well as the ban on journalists from entering the military bases, it seems highly unlikely that Iran will ever disclose the root cause of the incident in full detail. It is expected to be handled in much the same way as the Konarak frigate, which was targeted and sunk in the Persian Gulf in May this year.