Analysis |

Another Mysterious Iran Strike. Totally Different Circumstances

Did the drone strike on the Iranian site – conducted while Israel's army chief is in Washington – surprise the Americans?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
IDF chief Aviv Kochavi in Virginia, U.S. June 2021.
IDF chief Aviv Kochavi in Virginia, U.S. June 2021.Credit: Anna Moneymaker - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The exact nature of the latest incident remains in a fog. A facility connected to Iran’s nuclear program located west of Tehran was attacked on Wednesday morning. Reports on Iranian news websites indicated that a drone had been used and that the authorities had successfully thwarted the attack. A few additional details leaked later.

The New York Times reported that the targeted building, near the city of Karaj, “was one of Iran’s main manufacturing centers for the production of the centrifuges used at the country’s two nuclear facilities, Fordow and Natanz.” The Times noted that the factory “was on a list of targets that Israel presented to the Trump administration early last year.”

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The fog around the latest attack is thickening in the wake of the step that the Americans took this week. The U.S. Justice Department announced on Wednesday that the Biden administration had seized 33 official Iranian news websites, which it claimed the regime had used to dispense disinformation. However, the information that was published anyway about the drone attack is slightly reminiscent of the attack in Lebanon attributed to Israel in August 2019. In that incident, a drone destroyed a device deemed a critical component in Hezbollah’s project to make its rockets more accurate.

Iran’s nuclear program suffered three other setbacks over the past year, all of them attributed to Israel. Mysterious explosions took place at the Natanz facility twice, in July 2020 and last April. The common denominator with the attack on Wednesday is that it slows down Iranian’s enrichment efforts, which resumed two years ago in response to America’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Last November, anonymous assailants assassinated scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of the country’s military nuclear program. A previous assassination was carried out in Iraq in January 2020, when Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was killed in a U.S. air strike.

Various reports asserted that Israel had provided intelligence for the operation, which is considered the most painful blow the Islamic regime has suffered, both because of Soleimani’s position in the military apparatus and the subversion that Iran engaged in abroad, and because of the personal affection that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had for him.

Compared to the previous series of operations, the drone attack on Wednesday occurred amid circumstances that had fundamentally changed. The personnel operating in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran are mostly new. The Biden administration replaced the Trump administration in January; the Bennett-Lapid government replaced the Netanyahu government early this month; and Ebrahim Raisi was elected the new president of Iran just last week, although he won’t start the job until August. More importantly, the American attitude has taken a 180-degree turn. The new administration is determined to succeed in the nuclear talks and to return to the deal with the Iranians after a three-year hiatus, even before Raisi takes office.

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi talking about the nuclear deal at a press conference earlier today. Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

The rounds of negotiations between Iran and the world powers have been taking place in Vienna once every few weeks. Most of the time, the Iranian regime telegraphs the message that it is inclined toward an agreement. The Americans announced on Wednesday that they had agreed to remove all sanctions levied against the production of Iranian oil. Tehran is already amassing its oil reserves ahead of renewed export in large quantities. Intelligence agencies in Israel and the West are deliberating about Iran’s bargaining position.

Are the demands that Iran is advancing in the negotiations, which are occasionally backed by stiff public rhetoric, only part of the well-known “bazaar” approach, or is there still a chance that Khamanei will have last-minute resistance? Analysts are leaning toward the assessment that indeed the deal will be signed in the end.

The Americans certainly want to make a deal. Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi went to Washington this week for an extensive round of talks with senior U.S. administration officials. The chief of staff departed for the United States with more leeway than the previous delegation from Israel sent by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, in April.

That delegation was forbidden from discussing details of the nuclear agreement with Washington. In contrast, Bennett authorized Kochavi to communicate to his American interlocutors Israel’s reservations with the emerging deal. Netanyahu wanted a fitting cynical response, demonstrating proud defiance. Bennett, who is more practical, is still seeking to wield some influence.

Prime Minister Naftali BennettCredit: Yonatan Zindel / Flash 90

He adopted, to a large degree, the recommendation he received from three former senior defense establishment officials (Aharon Ze’evi-Farkas, a former director of military intelligence; Gideon Frank, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and Ariel Levite, a former IAEC deputy director general), as Haaretz reported last week. Israel has a narrow window of opportunity to influence the deal. It had better try and make use of it.

These senior officials have no illusions. The damage that has been caused since the Trump administration withdrew from the previous agreement has been dramatic. The enriched uranium that Iran has accumulated over the past two years put them in a position, should they desire, to be within just a few months of amassing a sufficient amount to produce one bomb, even though it will take an additional period to prepare it as a missile warhead.

Kochavi explained Israel’s reservations this week. The Americans certainly listened politely. It is doubtful whether this exchange will divert them from their path. The officials are working under explicit orders from President Joe Biden to return to the agreement as quickly as possible.

The Americans are promising to Israel that the final accord will be “longer and stronger” in terms of the time-frame of its effectiveness and the limitations on Iran. However, it will depend on the understandings that will be obtained with the Iranians only after returning to the nuclear agreement.

For now, it seems like an empty commitment. If we assume that Israel is behind the attack, then another interesting question is whether the drone attack on Wednesday, which happened during Kochavi’s visit in Washington, surprised the Americans, or whether the whole incident was coordinated in advance in order to pressure the Iranians.

Last April, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s arrival in Israel for a visit was preceded a few hours earlier by the second explosion to hit Natanz. The American’s discomfort was noticeable throughout that visit.

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