Mystery swirls around explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

An explosion at the heart of Iran’s nuclear programme in the dead of night. An obscure group called the Cheetahs of the Homeland takes credit for it. Then there are fires and gas leaks at key infrastructure around the country.

In recent days, speculation has flourished about what exactly happened at Natanz, an assembly plant for centrifuges used to enrich uranium, and other facilities around Iran.

Satellite images of Natanz show a 10-metre crater and destroyed roofing material, according to the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC. The explosion delivered “a major setback to Iran’s abilities to deploy advanced centrifuges on a mass scale for years to come,” the institute said.

Iran’s atomic energy organisation has confirmed that the level of damage was “considerable”. The Supreme National Security Council said it knows of “the main reason” for the incident in the morning on 2 July but could not disclose it for “security purposes”.

“The level of destruction strengthens the possibility of it being sabotage,” according to an article published this week in Hamshahri, a semi-official daily newspaper. The sabotage was carried out by “assailants” who moved across the desert in the dark to Natanz at 2am . . . because they “probably intended not to incur human losses . . . nor cause radioactive radiation”, Hamshahri said.

A building damaged by a fire at the Natanz facility © Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/AP

“The explosion definitely seems like an attack by the US or Israel or both like a warning that ‘we are too close to you’,” said an analyst close to reformist circles. “The act was big and caused significant [ financial] damage, making Iran’s tensions with the US even more complicated than before.”

A group called the “Cheetahs of the Homeland” has claimed responsibility. The group’s statement, sent by the Telegram messaging app, said they were former Iranian intelligence and security agents who want to overthrow the Islamic republic. It said more attacks similar to the one at Natanz were planned.

Natanz has been targeted by cyber attacks in the past. It was hit by the computer virus Stuxnet in 2010, widely believed to have been instigated by the US and Israel.

Such attacks stopped after Iran signed a nuclear agreement with world powers in 2015 and halted most of its uranium enrichment activities. But after Donald Trump decided to pull the US out of the nuclear deal two years ago and began reimposing sanctions, Iran resumed various elements of its nuclear programme.

This included the assembly plant at Natanz, which since 2018 has had the capacity to build and test up to 60 advanced centrifuges at once. Satellite images suggest the production facility has been destroyed. If necessary, security officials in Tel Aviv say that Iran could quickly bring earlier generation centrifuges online to continue enrichment, albeit at a lower speed.

The blast took place about one week after an explosion at Iran’s Parchin military site which Tehran said was caused by a gas leak. There have also in recent days been fires and gas leaks in a medical clinic in the Iranian capital, a power plant in the southwestern city of Ahwaz, a petrochemical centre in the southern port city of Mahshahr and a small factory in southern Tehran.

If the explosion at Natanz is proven to be sabotage, then suspicion would fall on Israel and the US. Two years ago, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even boasted that Israel had broken into the Iranian nuclear archive.

“It’s pretty clear the Israelis have the capability to conduct sabotage,” said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“If the Israelis are indeed responsible for Natanz, the question is why? Iran’s nuclear stockpile is not yet a threat, and Iranian violations of the nuclear deal are not egregious. It could be that Israel wants to disrupt Iran’s re-emerging nuclear programme while they still have a like-minded ally in the White House and to keep Tehran off balance.”

Mr Hokayem added that if it was sabotage, it posed a dilemma for Iran. “Iran still wants to avoid a direct escalation with the US in the hope of outlasting the Trump administration. So it appears to be playing down the gravity of the setback. ”

“Whoever did this did it in a way that cannot escalate into a war, for instance by carrying out an air strike,” said Sima Shine, the ex-head of the Research and Evaluation Division of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

“Both sides are trying to avoid a direct military confrontation. Both sides are trying to do it under the radar, in a way that does not escalate,” said Ms Shine, who now runs the Iran program at the Institute for National Security Studies. “But this is a dramatic event, because there was an explosion.”

The other explosions in Iran could be unrelated, said Ms Shine, but the explosion at Natanz was clearly sabotage. 

Nournews, a website that is close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that if Israel was behind the attack, this could show a “strategic shift” in the US and Israel’s dealing with the Islamic republic “by entering into Iran’s restricted area and crossing the red line”. This could lead to “fundamental changes” in the region, it said.