Experts: Natanz Explosion Set Back Iran’s Nuclear Program by More Than a Year

It's unclear if the explosion and other incidents that occurred in Iran over the past week were connected, but there is pressure mounting on Iran to respond. In the meantime, Israel is keeping quiet on whether it was responsible

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A building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, July 2, 2020.
A building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, July 2, 2020.Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP

Simon Henderson is a veteran researcher, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an article he published on Monday in The Hill, he says: “It looks as though a ‘nuclear war’ of sorts has started in the Middle East.” Many people, Henderson writes, say that Israel was behind the explosion at the Iranian centrifuge plant in Natanz on Thursday. Satellite photos of the site show that the facility was mostly destroyed in the blast.

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The Iranians now rely on older, IR-1 type centrifuges for enriching uranium. But these centrifuges can’t enrich uranium to the level required to manufacture a nuclear bomb. We can assume, Henderson writes, that Iran has gone back to manufacturing the more advanced IR-2 centrifuges that it needs for this purpose.

Henderson believes that the explosion has put the Natanz facility out of commission, and the Islamic Republic probably doesn’t have an alternative to manufacture the advanced centrifuges. The Iranian nuclear program has been set back for months, if not years. This assessment is similar in spirit to those quoted by various intelligence officials over the past few days, which cite a setback of one or two years.

Between 2009 and 2013, a debate raged among top-level policy and security officials in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in favor of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. But Netanyahu, who acted for most of that time with the support of his defense minister, Ehud Barak, encountered wall-to-wall opposition from Israeli security officials.

Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. annotated by experts shows a damaged building after a fire and explosion at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, , July 3, 2020.
Satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. annotated by experts shows a damaged building after a fire and explosion at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, , July 3, 2020.Credit: Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP

The controversy focused on the model of action – a “loud” aerial strike that Israel could not deny. Senior Israel Defense Force, Mossad and Shin Bet security service officials feared that an assault would only delay the nuclear program for a relatively short time, and could become complicated and lead to war with Iran and Hezbollah. This would in turn severely affect the Israeli home front, and would lead to an unbridgeable rift with the Obama administration. We know how this ended: Netanyahu backed down and the assault was shelved. In 2015, President Barack Obama led the signing of an agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear program.

Today there is a different president in the White House. If Henderson and others are right, then Israel, obviously with the knowledge and backing of the United States, has found a roundabout solution to the problem in light of Iran’s renewed progress with its nuclear program. Instead of an aerial assault with a low signature, there was a mysterious explosion occurred, and the chain of command behind it is not entirely clear.

The damage is the same, but the price might be much lower. This is certainly not the end of the nuclear program, which is intentionally spread over many sites, some of which are deep underground. But a main artery may have been hit.

According to intelligence sources in the Middle East and the West quoted in The New York Times, the explosion in Natanz was not the result of a cyberattack, but a bomb that was smuggled into the facility. Whoever was operating there scored a triple achievement: Good timing (before the advanced centrifuges were brought to a protected underground facility), excellent intelligence and rare operational capability. This requires impressively deep infrastructure.

Only two and a half years ago Israel made a rare announcement of an achievement parallel in character: The theft of the Iranian nuclear archive in a complex Mossad operation.

The explosion in Natanz was the key event in a series of explosions and fires that occurred in Iran over the course of a week, a mysterious series of incidents in which, according to reports, a missile production facility, a clinic, a factory and a power station were hit in various and distant points within the country. Israel did not officially respond to any of the reports. Netanyahu ignored a question on the matter at a press conference on Thursday. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel was not necessarily behind every incident in the region.

An unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency inspector at the Natanz facility, south of Tehran, January 20, 2014
An unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency inspector at the Natanz facility, south of Tehran, January 20, 2014Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

The impression is that there is not necessarily a connection between all the incidents or a common source of responsibility for them. But the resounding nature of their sequence is exerting pressure on Iran to respond. In any case, Iran is in tough straits: The sanctions led by the Trump administration have paralyzed the economy, and the coronavirus and the oil crisis have devastated it. And Tehran still has not managed to respond to the American assassination of Revolutionary Guard chief General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.

At the end of last week, the former head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, mentioned possible Iranian responses, including cyberattacks.

In the past it was Soleimani who led a few failed responses by firing rockets from Syria after massive Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in that country. Two weeks ago there was a major aerial assault, allegedly by Israel, in which Iranian weapons stockpiles and bases were reportedly damaged.

In the fall of 2019, Iran demonstrated impressive capability of its own when it launched sophisticated attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities with cruise missiles and drones. But these are apparently weapons that need to be moved closer to Israel in order for them to be used as threats. It may be assumed that Israeli intelligence is following any such movement to prepare accordingly.

Until a week ago people were intensely preoccupied with the possibility that Netanyahu might lead an annexation of West Bank territory, which would ramp up tensions in the region. Now it seems that annexation has gone into deep freeze, but the regional temperature only continues to rise. This is happening because of the tension between Israel and Iran, with an unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon in the background.

Hezbollah is under huge public pressure there. Military friction with Israel seems like the last thing that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah needs or wants, but one can’t always foresee the direction of developments.

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