An online video and messages purportedly claiming responsibility for a fire that analysts say damaged a centrifuge assembly plant at Iran's underground Natanz nuclear site deepened the mystery Friday around the incident.
The multiple, different claims by a self-described group called the “Cheetahs of the Homeland” included language used by several exiled Iranian opposition organizations, as well as focused almost entirely on Iran's nuclear program, viewed by Israel as a danger to its very existence.
The disparate messages, as well as the fact Iran experts had never heard of the group before, raised questions about whether Natanz again had faced sabotage by a foreign nation as it had during the Stuxnet computer virus outbreak believed to have been engineered by the U.S. and Israel.
“If it is proven that our country has been attacked by cyberattacks, we will respond,” warned Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali, the head of Iran’s military unit in charge of combating sabotage, according to a report late Thursday by the Mizan news agency.
Iranian officials have sought to downplay the fire early Thursday, calling it only an “incident” that affected an “industrial shed.” However, a released photo and video broadcast by Iranian state television of the site showed a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.
The fire began around 2 a.m. local time in the northwest corner of the Natanz compound in Iran’s central Isfahan province, according to data collected by a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite that tracks fires from space.
Two U.S.-based analysts who spoke to The Associated Press, relying on released pictures and satellite images, identified the affected building as Natanz's new Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center. Iranian nuclear officials did not respond to a request for comment from the AP on the analysts' findings.
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Before news of the fire became public, the BBC's Persian service says its journalists received emails from the self-proclaimed “Cheetahs of the Homeland” claiming an attack at Natanz.
A video claimed the group included “soldiers from the heart of regime’s security organizations” who wanted to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran long has maintained its atomic program is for peaceful purposes. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” through the end of 2003.
The video and one written statement also referred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as “zahhak,” a monster in Persian folklore. But the tone across the messages clashed, with one using terminology often associated with Iran's Mujahedeen-e-Khalq exile group and the video seemingly showing Iran's Shiite theocracy as worse than the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The video also included part of the nationalist song “Ey Iran,” which reformists and opposition groups both sing.
The MEK and supporters of the shah's exiled son Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi did not respond to requests for comment. The AP received no response to an email sent to one address associated with the “Cheetahs of the Homeland” statements.
The purported group's name, “the Cheetahs of the Homeland,” also struck some as odd, given that the “cheetahs” is a nickname of Iran's national football club. Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist who works with The New York Times and published a book on the Mossad titled “Rise and Kill First,” questioned why an Iranian opposition group would name itself that.
“It’s highly unlikely that a serious opposition movement would use such a name, which is probably exactly what the people who came up with it, were aiming people to think,” Bergman wrote Friday on Twitter in English, without elaborating. He also tweeted a similar message in Hebrew.
Suspicion over the incident had immediately fallen on Israel, including in a commentary published by the state-run IRNA news agency Thursday.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iran lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, who viewed the “Cheetahs of the Homeland” video, said any domestic group that managed to penetrate Iran’s heavily guarded nuclear facilities would be unlikely to risk being captured over distributing such a video. He said “it’s difficult to know” if Israel’s Mossad or another foreign intelligence agency produced the video
“Israel is not the only country in the world that has Persian speakers,” Javedanfar said. “It could be a foreign intelligence agency, in order to sow discord in Iran ... or maybe it’s a false flag by the Iranian regime in order to crack down.”
The video did, however, call it the Kashan nuclear site, rather than Natanz. Kashan is a nearby city once home to a large, historic Jewish community. Iranians uniformly call the nuclear site Natanz.
Destroying a centrifuge assembly facility could greatly impact Iran's ability to more-quickly enrich greater amounts of uranium, which would be a goal for either Israel or the U.S.
Iran had begun experimenting with advanced centrifuge models in the wake of the U.S. unilaterally withdrawing from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. However, it took years for Iran to perfect its first-generation IR-1 centrifuge off designs it purchased from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's black market network. It's unclear if Iran has another similar-size assembly facility.
The fact that the Natanz fire also comes less than a week after an explosion in an area east of Tehran that analysts believe hides an underground tunnel system and missile production sites also raises suspicions.
“This is the second mysterious incident in the last week at a critical Iranian facility,” Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor said. “Either one could in fact have been the result of a domestic group acting with or without foreign support, or the result of a U.S. or Israeli cyber attack.”
Stratfor warned: “If there is a campaign by the United States, Israel and/or local groups in Iran underway, then Iran is likely to eventually respond in kind, potentially against Western targets in the Persian Gulf.”