The secret battle underway between Israel and Iran isn’t so secret anymore. On Sunday morning, Iran reported that a mysterious “accident” in the Natanz nuclear facility’s electrical distribution grid had occurred overnight. This is the same Iranian facility that suffered great damage from an explosion in July, and the latest malfunction has apparently also disrupted the plant’s operations. On the basis of past media reports, one can infer that this was caused by an Israeli cyberattack.
This incident comes less than a week after reports of an explosion on an Iranian Revolutionary Guards command ship in the Red Sea, an incident also blamed on Israel. That blast is just the latest in a series of seaborne attacks against Iran, to which Tehran has chosen to respond with two attacks on Israeli-owned merchant vessels within less than two months.
The escalation, which isn’t so gradual anymore, is taking place against the backdrop of renewed nuclear talks between Iran and world powers. Their aim is to get the United States to return to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned three years ago. The new U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, arrived in Israel on Sunday for his first working visit since he took office. Later this month, IDF chief Aviv Kochavi and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen are expected to visit Washington; the nuclear talks will top their agenda.
The New York Times reported that Israel had alerted the United States before the attack on the Iranian ship in the Red Sea, due to the presence of an American fleet in the region. If this was indeed an Israeli cyberattack, did the United States receive prior notice this time as well? The answer to that question would say a lot about the state of ties between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. In a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony last week, Netanyahu once again spoke out again against a U.S. return to the nuclear agreement. But if this was a coordinated step, or at least something the United States was informed about ahead of time, then it is an entirely different matter.
The explosion in Natanz took place the day after Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day. President Hassan Rohani used the occasion to report additional progress in the country’s nuclear program, which the regime insists (despite all proof to the contrary) is intended for civilian purposes only. Within this context, the Iranians celebrated the upgrading of their uranium enrichment capabilities at Natanz by means of new IR-5 centrifuges, which Rohani said had stepped up the pace of enrichment by tenfold. This is another violation of the nuclear deal, one of many which Iran is accumulating for use as bargaining chips in anticipation of continued talks in Vienna. Yet a certain degree of progress has been reported regarding these talks, ahead of their expected resumption on Wednesday.
In the past, the U.S. and world media have reported, the cyberattacks and even explosions perpetrated via different means have managed to greatly hinder the Iranians’ nuclear achievements. This was the case with Stuxnet a decade ago, which reports said was a joint Israeli-U.S. operation. After last year’s Natanz incident, there were reports that said it had caused another significant delay in the nuclear program.
- Iran's atomic energy agency says Natanz facility hit by 'nuclear terrorism'
- Israel will work closely with U.S. on any new Iran deal, Gantz tells counterpart Austin
- Accident hit Natanz nuke site. Top Iranian official blames 'sabotage'
A politically sensitive moment
Alongside the messages to Biden, Rohani and Iran’s supreme spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, might Netanyahu also be sending a message a domestic, political message? At least on the issue of Iran, there are no known or overt differences of opinion between Netanyahu and his partner and rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Gantz publicly holds to the same hard line as Netanyahu with regard to the Iranians. On Sunday afternoon, the two will be holding their first meeting in months, that isn’t via Zoom or back-to-back in the Knesset, at a toast in honor of Independence Day with members of the IDF top brass.
The attacks attributed to Israel are taking place at a politically sensitive moment. A security escalation could be the straw that breaks Naftali Bennett and Bezalel Smotrich’s spirit of opposition. The two are still refusing, each for their own reasons, to join a fully right-wing government as proposed by Netanyahu – ignoring for the moment that he’s seeking support from the United Arab List party, which represents the Islamic Movement. There is an unhealthy mix here of security and political concerns. At the same time, it’s not certain how attentive the prime minister is to urgent matters of defense, what with being so preoccupied with the many developments of his trial.
The means of checks and balances on the defense establishment’s activities are comatose. The security cabinet almost never convenes, and in effect has not been functional for the past several months. The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has yet to reconvene since the new Knesset was sworn in last week. The press, for the most part, is busy chasing after political anecdotes and baseless conspiracy theories.
The committee of security service heads, made up of the leaders of the Mossad, Shin Bet and the military, isn’t what it used to be, either. Relations between the three of them are not at their best, and inter-organizational competition runs rampant despite their fruitful cooperation on some fronts.
Even the term lengths of these three leaders have a question mark hovering over them. Kochavi is still awaiting notification of whether his term is being extended for a fourth year starting January, as is customary; during his tenure as defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman was much quicker to extend the term of former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot at an earlier stage. The term of Mossad chief Cohen was extended by six months through June, and his deputy, “D,” was already named as his successor, but then Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit stepped in to announce that there may be issues with a transitional government approving such an appointment.
Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, who had been due to step down next month, has agreed to Netanyahu’s request to extend his term by another four months. But the extension is not being made under normal circumstances. Netanyahu wants to name National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat, a member of his inner circle, to the post. That choice has encountered firm opposition from Gantz and reservations on the part of other members of the security service – making for difficult conditions for conducting such a complex campaign.