In Depth

Iranian-Israeli tensions mount after Mossad strike on Natanz nuclear site

Tehran vows revenge as attack sets back nuclear programme ‘by at least nine months’

A major explosion that caused a power blackout at Iran’s main nuclear facility was “an act of nuclear terrorism” by Israel, Tehran has alleged.

Tensions between the two nations have escalated rapidly since the blast at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility on Sunday, which intelligence sources say “dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium” and could set back production by “at least nine months”, The New York Times (NYT) reports. 

Multiple Israeli news outlets have reported that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency was behind the alleged sabotage, which appears to be the latest in “a years-long series of Israeli efforts” to undermine Iran’s nuclear programme “by a variety of means”, says The Washington Post.

Power outage

The Telegraph reports that the explosion at the “largely underground” nuclear enrichment facility came “the day after Iran’s National Nuclear Day, when it inaugurated new advanced centrifuges” – marking another breach of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018.

The heavily guarded site in Natanz, around 155 miles south of the capital, Tehran, was hit by an “electrical blackout” following the blast, which is thought to have “left some older centrifuges damaged”, The Washington Post adds.

Iran’s Nournews site has reportedly been told by an “informed official” in the Ministry of Intelligence that the individual behind the outage “has been identified” and that “necessary measures are being taken to arrest this person”.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has “vowed vengeance against Israel” for the attack, The Telegraph adds.

According to Iranian state media, Zarif said on Monday that “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.”

While Israeli media has all but confirmed that Mossad was behind the strike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained vague when asked by reporters about his country’s involvement. 

“Iran has never given up its quest for nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them,” he said, adding: “I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.”

The attack on the Natanz site is by no means the first. More than a decade ago, “a joint Israeli-American cyberattack” on the facility was carried out in a bid to “slow Tehran’s progress toward nuclear weapons”, says the NYT.

The White House has denied any links to Sunday’s blackout, however. Spokesperson Jen Psaki told a press briefing that “the US was not involved in any manner”.

Nuclear friction

The attack comes amid ongoing talks between US and Iranian officials in Vienna about reviving the Iran nuclear deal. Representatives of the two countries are not meeting in person, with EU officials instead facilitating the negotiations, scheduled to last for ten days.

Lawmakers in Tehran have called on Foreign Minister Zarif to suspend the talks, arguing that “Iran should not be engaged in negotiations when it is under attack”, the NYT says.

“Talks under pressure have no meaning,” Abbas Moghtadaie, deputy chair of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said during a talk on the Clubhouse social media app on Monday. “This was a message we conveyed very clearly today.”

Meanwhile, Israel remains concerned that Iran could one day manufacture an atomic bomb, with Middle East correspondent Campbell MacDiarmid writing that “analysts suggested that the timing was not coincidental”.

Rather than aiming to “derail the talks”, the move is being interpreted as a sign that Israel is “willing to act independently to advance its interests”, MacDiarmid says. “The Natanz incident was the second apparent attack on Iranian interests since indirect talks over the nuclear deal started last week.”

Zarif’s pledge to take revenge against Israel “highlighted the risk of escalation in a years-long shadow war between Iran and Israel”, the NYT says. 

The Natanz site is not far from the area where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the scientists who American intelligence officials believe was behind Iran’s secret nuclear programme, was killed in December by a remote-controlled gun. Like the security failure that resulted in Fakhrizadeh’s death, “the attack this weekend was another humiliating indication that [Iran’s] programme has been penetrated by spies and saboteurs”, the paper adds.

“These incidents were timed and tied to the nuclear deal talks and Iran’s nuclear day events but that’s just tradecraft from the Israelis,” Joel Gulhane, Middle East and North Africa analyst at The Risk Advisory Group, told The Telegraph.

“As Netanyahu said, Israel’s strategic aims with regards to Iran’s nuclear programme are not bound by the nuclear deal,” Gulhane added. “Israel is demonstrating what it can do to Iran's nuclear programme if it needs to.”

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