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The Explosion at Natanz Is a Direct Hit on Iran's Nuclear Program

They're still assessing the damage to the nuclear facility, but Iran is already blaming Israel. They may try to retaliate

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 2019.
Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 2019.Credit: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

UPDATE: Fire at Iranian nuclear facility could slow down centrifuge development, official says

The latest events in Iran, in particular the explosion at the nuclear facility in Natanz on Thursday, represent a significant rise in tensions in the region, even if the various countries are still preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences.

Figures in Iran have already blamed Israel for the explosion, saying it may have been caused by a cyberattack. If that is so, according to past reports of exchanges between the two sides, it would suggest that Iran will try to respond, possibly with yet another cyberstrike of its own.

The chain of incidents in Iran began in the middle of last week, with an explosion at a weapons development facility in Parchin. It was followed by an explosion at a site in Tehran that was described as a hospital, and that resulted in casualties. The Natanz explosion came later, and on Saturday a fire was reported at a power station in the southern Iranian region of Ahvzaz, close to the Iraqi border.

The temptation to draw a connection among all of these incidents is great, but it’s not clear that all were the result of planned attacks or that all were planned by the same entity. The power station, for one, is very far from the other sites, and it’s not known to be connected to any Iranian military program. It was only regarding the Natanz incident that Iranian officials, speaking to reporters from Reuters, pointed the finger at Israel.

The underground facility that was damaged in Natanz is at the heart of the debate on Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement. It’s where the newer, faster centrifuges that accelerate the rate of uranium enrichment are assembled. The agreement that the Obama administration championed, which was signed in 2015, left Iran with an estimated “breakout time” to the creation of a nuclear bomb of about one year.

Workers at a drive-through coronavirus testing facility in Jerusalem on July 2, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, after being persuaded to do so by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tehran waited for about a year, then began a series of violations of the terms of the agreement, without formally renouncing it. The most disturbing development, to the United States and to Israel, has to do with the improvement to uranium enrichment and advances in accumulating the material needed for a nuclear bomb. Western intelligence agencies estimate that the breakout time has been halved (although Iran has not yet made a strategic decision in this regard).

It can be assumed that the Natanz attack had a dual purpose: first, to send Tehran the message that there is a cost to its conduct, which includes not only the nuclear advances but also the manufacture of long-range missiles and aid to terror organizations in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and second, on the practical level, to disrupt Iran’s renewed progress toward a nuclear bomb.

It’s not yet clear how much damage was done to the Natanz facility. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security analyzed satellite images from the site and determined that the fire was in a centrifuge assembly workshop adjacent to the enrichment facility. It described the workshop as “a critical part of Iran’s plan to deploy thousands of advanced centrifuges.”

The executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, wrote on his Twitter account Friday that “If Israel is accused by official elements [in Iran], this would call for operational preparedness for the possibility of an Iranian cyber response, the firing of missiles from Syria or a terror attack from abroad.” His tweet preceded the Reuters report.

Israel and Iran, it should be recalled, exchanged cyberattacks just two months ago, according to foreign media reports. It began with an Iranian attempt to hack into computers that control the chlorine levels in Israel’s drinking water. The attempt presumably failed, but a few days later there were reports of an Israeli cyberattack that disrupted for a number of days activities at Bandar Abbas, an important Iranian seaport.

It appears that all of the parties involved are acting out of an awareness of a window of opportunity that is expected to end in November with the U.S. presidential election. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and then pursued a policy of “maximum economic pressure” on Iran, in the form of sanctions on the state and on foreign countries trading with it. In early January, when the new coronavirus first appeared, the United States also took the exceptional measure of assassinating Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, during a visit to Iraq. If it turns out that the Americans are connected to the Natanz attack, it will signal that Trump is ready to get tougher with the Iranians in the four months remaining until the election. Recent polls predict that he will lose to Joe Biden in a landslide.

Netanyahu has for a long time called publicly for harsher treatment of Iran, in part over its nuclear violations. At the same time, there have been reports of the acceleration of Israeli strikes on Iranian interests in Syria, including in some cases on very distant targets, near the Syria-Iraq border.

Trump and Netanyahu are each dealing with unprecedented economic and public-health crises that also threaten their political futures. Perhaps they may be taking a tougher stance against Iran. That could have broad consequences for the region, even if all three countries are mired deep in the coronavirus crisis (and it seems that all three are failing spectacularly at coping with the pandemic).

Pressure on health system

The coronavirus news in Israel continues to be worrying. It appears that the dispute over the intensity of the new outbreak is about to be decided. It cannot be attributed solely to the significant increase in testing, since the proportion of tests that come back positive is also rising constantly. Moreover, after a few weeks with only a moderate rise in the number of acutely ill patients, last week that number surged, almost doubling in 10 days, to 82 as of Saturday morning.

Even though the proportion of younger patients and coronavirus carriers who don’t report symptoms of COVID-19 is higher than it was in March-April when tests were in short supply, that may not matter. The rise in the number of COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized and the number in serious condition is enough to put significant pressure on the health system. And since the patient numbers reflect the infection rate from 10-14 days earlier, it’s clear that the numbers are only expected to rise. The coronavirus cabinet decided Thursday to reduce the number of participants in gatherings and banquet halls, but that’s unlikely to suffice. In any event, it will take some time before the effect of the new restrictions is felt.

In the meantime, it’s clear to everyone involved that the crisis is not being managed properly. Netanyahu fiercely refuses the recommendation to appoint a central body headed by a “coronavirus czar” to coordinate the country’s response. The recommendation calls for the Health Ministry to focus on professional advice and on regulation and to admit failure in its efforts to lead the charge. Alternatively, the national control center could be reactivated, while increasing the army’s involvement in its operation.

It’s doubtful that the army is able or willing to lead the national effort, even though its participation in the project would intensify if the crisis deepens. Nor would relying on the National Emergency Authority produce the desired result. It’s an impotent agency that was intentionally starved by the military establishment for years, its authority reduced repeatedly. Just last weekend the Defense Ministry published in newspapers a call for proposals for a permanent chair for the agency. That doesn’t allow for leading such a complicated maneuver, during the heat of the crisis.

Two hits in two days

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has other worries, for now. Last week, his plans took two hits in two days. First, the army was forced to inform the men in the August draft period that their mandatory service would be abbreviated by another two months, to just two and a half years. Next, Defense Minister Benny Gantz informed him that the plan to move the military’s intelligence units to the Negev was being accelerated.

Kochavi was firmly against the 2015 agreement to reduce mandatory service for men beginning in July of 2020. But due to the prolonged political paralysis amid several elections, his efforts over the past year and a half to reverse the decision, which his immediate predecessor Gadi Eisenkot supported, came to naught. He has less than a month to solve the problem.

If the change is not called off before the new recruits are sworn in next month, the male August draftees will be able to argue later, if the army tries to extend their service by two months, that it violated its promise to them. The army would struggle to defend its decision in the High Court of Justice. Now a decision must be made on restoring the two months, a move the Finance Ministry will oppose, or alternatively, promising a compensation package for the military.

Kochavi conditioned the relocation of the intelligence units to the Negev on the completion of new railway lines to serve the planned bases. Military Intelligence fears a "brain drain" of talented technology officers leaving for the Mossad or the private sector, preferring that to moving away from central Israel.

Gantz, acting against Kochavi's recommendation, decided to move forward with the call for proposals for the relocation, which have been submitted and will be examined this week. A serious confrontation between the two men is building up, but it's just the trailer for the main event: the battle over the cuts to the military budget the cabinet will demand, which are also fiercely opposed by the chief of staff.

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