The explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site on Sunday dealt a severe blow to the country’s ability to enrich uranium and could take at least nine months to restore, the New York Times reported Monday, citing American and Israeli intelligence officials.
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said on Sunday that a problem with the electrical distribution grid of the Natanz nuclear facility was caused by a "terrorist" act.
Later on Monday, Iran said it identified the person who caused the power outage at the site. "Necessary measures are being taken to arrest this person who caused the electricity outage in one of the halls at the Natanz site," Iran's Nournews website quoted intelligence sources as saying, giving no details about the person.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday said "the Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions .... They have publicly said that they will not allow this. But we will take our revenge from the Zionists," according to Iranian state TV.
His ministry's spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, told a news conference on Monday that the incident could be considered as an "act against humanity."
"There was no contamination or injuries but it could cause a disaster. It could be considered as an act against humanity," Khatibzadeh said, adding that Iran would take revenge at the "appropriate time."
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“The answer for Natanz is to take revenge against Israel,” Khatibzadeh said. “Israel will receive its answer through its own path.”
According to state TV, the atomic agency chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, didn't say who Tehran blamed for the alleged cyberattack, but the New York Times report said Israel was behind the “large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium,” citing American and Israeli officials who remain anonymous.
Salehi later rebutted the reports, saying the nuclear program at Natanz has been set back nine months, but that it will operate at 50 percent capacity.
Contrary to Iran's initial explanation for the incident, in which it cited a cyberattack, the anonymous intelligence officials told the New York Times it was the detonation of explosives that caused the damage at Natanz.
The incident took place a day after Tehran, which has insisted it is only seeking peaceful nuclear energy and not nuclear bombs through the enrichment process, launched new advanced centrifuges at Natanz.
"All of the centrifuges that went out of circuit at Natanz site were of the IR-1 type," Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a news conference, referring to Iran's first generation of enrichment machines that are more vulnerable to outages.
"Our nuclear experts are assessing the damage, but I can assure you that Iran will replace damaged uranium enrichment centrifuges in Natanz with advanced ones."
Modernized centrifuges can refine uranium to higher fissile purity at a much faster rate, helping accumulate a stockpile that could shorten Iran's route to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to develop them, than the IR-1 that still predominates in Natanz's production halls.
Iran's 2015 international nuclear accord allows it to enrich with up to 5,060 IR-1 machines, at a plant designed to house around 50,000, but it has begun enriching at Natanz with hundreds of advanced centrifuges, including the IR-2m.
Despite strong Israeli opposition, U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is committed to rejoining the deal, from which his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew, if the Islamic Republic returns to full compliance with restrictions on nuclear fuel production.
Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said nuclear talks would resume on Wednesday in Vienna. Diplomatic headway has been made, delegates said on Friday. Iran insists that all U.S. sanctions crippling its oil-based economy must be lifted first before it stops accelerating enrichment and restores caps on the process.
Alleged Israeli involvement
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the reports that it was responsible for the damage at Natanz, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that "the fight against Iran and its proxies... is a massive task. The way things are now doesn't mean they will stay that way later on."
The incident at Natanz nuclear site came the same day as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Israel, marking the first official visit by a U.S. official since President Joe Biden took office in January. Netanyahu was also set to meet with Austin on Monday.
In a joint statement on Sunday, Gantz pledged to cooperate with the United States on Iran, promising that Israeli security would be safeguarded under any renewed Iranian nuclear deal that Washington reaches.
"We will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel."
In his public remarks, Austin did not comment on Iran specifically. He said the Biden administration would continue to ensure Israel's "qualitative military edge" in the Middle East as part of a "strong commitment to Israel and the Israeli people."
"Our bilateral relationship with Israel in particular is central to regional stability and security in the Middle East. During our meeting I reaffirmed to Minister Gantz our commitment to Israel is enduring and it is ironclad," Austin said.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani reiterated Iran's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation on Saturday while overseeing the launch of advanced centrifuges at the Natanz plant to mark the country's National Nuclear Technology Day.
The Natanz facility, which is located in the desert in the central province of Isfahan, is the centerpiece of Iran's uranium enrichment program and has been monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.
In July last year, a fire broke out at the Natanz facility, which the government said was an attempt to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.
In 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz. Iran has also blamed Israel for last year’s killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was seen by Western intelligence services as the mastermind of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the killing.