After Natanz Attack, Israel and Iran on ‘Path to Escalation,’ Expert Says
Strike on uranium enrichment facility sure to draw a response, he says
Iran’s uranium enrichment site in Natanz reportedly experienced an explosion on Sunday, causing a power failure. Israeli and American officials pointed to Israel as responsible for the attack, claiming the explosion damaged the site and Iran’s ability to enrich uranium significantly, The New York Times reported.
The Islamic Republic’s nuclear program may need at least nine months to recover from the damage, the officials said.
Israel has not officially responded to the allegations.
Tehran has also publicly blamed Israel for the attack. State-owned Press TV quoted Saeed Khatibzadeh, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, as saying, “The appalling incident that took place in Natanz was the work of the Zionist regime.”
Although The Times reported heavy damage, Khatibzadeh said that “if the aim was to limit Iran’s nuclear capability, I have to say that on the contrary, all the centrifuges that went out of order due to the incident were of the IR1 type, and they are being replaced with more advanced ones,” Press TV reported.
Iran publicly inaugurated advanced centrifuges at its Natanz site on Saturday, when it marked its annual National Nuclear Technology Day. The new centrifuges are intended to enrich uranium at a faster pace, and their introduction is contrary to the country’s commitments under the 2015 JCPOA nuclear accord.
The explosion in Natanz follows a string of recent reported violent altercations between Israel and Iran. Most recently, last week, Israel allegedly attacked an Iranian intelligence ship that was stationed in the Red Sea.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former member of Israel’s National Security Council, told The Media Line, “I don’t think that even those that carried out the attack know” the scale of the damage.
However, if The Times report is correct, the damage is significant, he said.
Centrifuges are “very sensitive to interruptions to the flow of electricity. So, the saboteur was probably able to damage the backups and the inner apparatus that the Iranians have,” Guzansky explained.
In addition to sabotaging the facility, the expert said the attack was intended as a warning, signaling to the Iranians that they are crossing someone’s red line. It also highlights the vulnerability of Iran’s most sensitive sites. “It [the attack] shows that Iran is completely transparent and open to infiltration operationally, and intelligence-wise.”
The Israeli researcher suggests that the explosion also carries a message to countries furthering the resurrection of the JCPOA. “It can tell countries that are negotiating with Iran, like the [Israeli] PM said last week, ‘We are not beholden to this agreement, so we aren’t committed to the negotiations with the Iranians either.’”
The explosion comes after the opening of indirect talks in Vienna between the US and Iran, intended to bring both countries back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 agreement signed with Iran to establish limitations and supervision on its nuclear program.
Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement unilaterally in 2018 and placed heavy sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Though both countries have expressed a wish to return to the agreement, progress has proven difficult. Each has insisted the other move first.
Israel strongly opposed the 2015 agreement when signed, and has maintained this stance since.
Initial reports from Vienna have been positive, but Dr. Christopher Bolan, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program and professor of Middle East security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, believes that the attack may make moving forward significantly more difficult.
“This attack will certainly complicate the ongoing negotiations to restore compliance with the Iran nuclear deal,” Bolan told The Media Line. The operation, he explained, “will bolster the hardline elements in Tehran long opposed to accepting any outside restrictions on what they maintain is a peaceful nuclear civilian program.”
The attack strengthens Iranian hardliners’ distrust in the West, he said, and “severely undermines the position of the pragmatists in Tehran who have been supportive of a more pragmatic approach with Western powers to resolve concerns about its nuclear program and thereby open Iran’s economy to outside investments.”
The American researcher further said that the attack “will do little to weaken Iranian leverage in negotiations.” Rather, it may make Tehran’s stance less pliable, “as Iranian officials will be even more reluctant to make any negotiated concessions while their civil nuclear program is under physical attack from the outside.”
Guzansky, however, suggests that if the reports are correct and the explosion has inflicted serious damage on the Iranians’ nuclear program, the attack will weaken the Islamic Republic’s position at the negotiation table.
“Iran wants to arrive at the negotiations or the agreement as a country on the verge of acquiring nuclear capabilities,” he explained. Such a position would add to the pressure on the other side to compromise and reach a quick understanding before Iran takes the last step. With this taken into consideration, the attack serves US interests, the expert explained, because it has secured it more time to negotiate before Iran has passed the “point of no return.”
Khatibzadeh told Press TV, “If the goal was to disrupt the removal of oppressive sanctions against the Iranian nation, they would certainly not achieve this goal, and no one would fall into the cunning trap they designed,” seemingly pointing to an Iranian determination to stay the course.
While the operation is possibly aligned with American interests, Guzansky thinks the White House was not necessarily notified in advance, despite the fact that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel at the time.
Bolan said, “It is impossible from the outside to determine the extent of any advance notice or coordination between Israel and Washington. However, it is highly unlikely that the Biden administration would have offered any degree of support for this attack as it so clearly poses a tremendous obstacle and direct challenge to already complex and delicate negotiations aimed at restoring mutual compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.”
He added that the larger context of the Israeli-Iranian conflict makes it even less likely that the US was somehow involved in the operation, as an escalation between the countries “could drag the US into another unwanted conflict in the Middle East that jeopardizes President Biden’s other higher foreign and domestic priorities.”
An American official told the Israeli news site Walla that the US was not involved in the operation in any way.
Both experts believe that an Iranian response is likely, and Press TV quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif threatening that “we will take revenge for these acts on the Zionists themselves.” Yet Bolan said that “such a response will not necessarily be immediate as Iranian leaders weigh options and consider potential ramifications.”
“There’s a sort of dilemma here for Iran,” Guzansky said, “a true dilemma, whether to respond drastically and escalate in a way that will damage its image and the negotiations – and again, it is an Iranian interest to have them succeed, for the sanctions to be lifted and for the pressure on it to lessen … and the pressure it feels to retaliate already.”
With pressure building up between the countries, the steam will have to be released somehow, so “we are on the path to escalation,” said Guzansky.