After nuclear site blackout, thunder from Iran, and silence from U.S.
By Patrick Kingsley, David E. Sanger and Farnaz Fassihi
The last time centrifuges exploded at Iran’s underground nuclear fuel-production center at Natanz, more than a decade ago, the sabotage was the result of a joint Israeli-American cyberattack intended to deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons.
When they exploded again this weekend, the White House asserted that the United States had no involvement.
The operation raised the question of whether Israel was acting on its own to undermine American diplomacy as the Biden administration seeks to reconstitute a nuclear agreement with Iran — or whether Israel was operating with at least the tacit blessing of the United States, carrying out dirty work that would weaken Iran’s negotiating position in the talks.
The White House was saying almost nothing in public Monday about the apparent explosion inside Iran’s Natanz facility, which is more than 25 feet underground, and which destroyed the power supply that keeps the centrifuges spinning at supersonic speeds, enriching uranium.
“The U.S. was not involved in any manner,” the White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, said Monday. “We have nothing to add on speculation about the causes or the impacts.”
White House officials did not comment on whether the United States had been given advance notice of the attack.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was in Israel when the attack took place, held two press briefings before he left Israel on Monday and never once uttered the word Iran.
White House and State Department officials said they had no idea whether the Iranians would show up in Vienna again Wednesday, when the talks were scheduled to resume.
In Tehran, lawmakers asked Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to suspend the talks, saying that Iran should not be engaged in negotiations when it is under attack.
“Talks under pressure have no meaning,” said Abbas Moghtadaie, the deputy chairman of Parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said in a Clubhouse talk Monday. “This was a message we conveyed very clearly today.”
The Biden administration is seeking to revive an agreement, scuttled by President Donald Trump three years ago, in which Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed the original agreement and has made no secret of his desire to blow up the talks along with the centrifuges.
Zarif, in a statement broadcast by Iranian state television, said that Israel wanted “to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions.”
“But we will take our revenge from the Zionists,” he continued.
His comments highlighted the risk of escalation in a yearslong shadow war between Iran and Israel, one that is taking place in the deserts of Natanz, along the shipping routes of the Persian Gulf and in the leafy suburbs of Tehran, where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the leader of what U.S. intelligence officials say was Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program, was killed in December by a remote-controlled gun as he drove to his weekend house.
For the Iranians, the attack this weekend was another humiliating indication that its program had been penetrated by spies and saboteurs, who have carried out a series of brazen attacks. While Israel usually stays silent when attacks like this happen, Israeli news outlets, citing intelligence sources, attributed this one to the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.
An intelligence official who asked not to be identified in order to discuss clandestine operations said an explosive device had been smuggled into the Natanz plant, was detonated remotely, and took out both the primary and backup electrical systems.
Intelligence officials suggested it would require many months for Iran to undo the damage.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said emergency power had been restored at Natanz on Monday and enrichment had not stopped at the facility. But it may be running at a fraction of the level is was before.
“A large portion of the enemy’s sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped,” he told Iranian media Monday.
But the attack, the latest security breach in a series of brazen incursions in the past year, has led to finger-pointing in Tehran and accusations of infiltration in the highest ranks of Iran’s security apparatus. The intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guard is responsible for both securing nuclear sites and protecting nuclear scientists.
Moghtdaie said his committee would investigate what he called “very obvious security infiltrations.”
Some U.S. officials, declining to speak on the record, expressed concern Monday that the attack would drive the nuclear program more deeply underground, where it would be hard to reach. Iran already headed in that direction years ago, when it built a small plant deep inside a mountain near the city of Qum.
More immediately, the leaking of details about Israeli involvement raised fears that Iran would seek to save face by mounting a stronger military response than usual.
“Once Israeli officials are quoted, it requires the Iranians to take revenge,” Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, said in an interview Monday with a radio station run by the Israeli Army.
“There are actions that must remain in the dark,” he said.
In Israel, some also questioned whether the attack had served a domestic purpose for Netanyahu, rather than just a foreign policy objective.
Netanyahu is standing trial for corruption and is struggling to form a new coalition government after a general election last month that gave no party an overall majority. Some analysts said they believed that a very public confrontation with Iran might help Netanyahu persuade wavering coalition partners that now is not the time to remove an experienced prime minister.
Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at energy development. But Israel sees it as an existential threat, since Iranian leaders have often called for Israel’s destruction.
“We both agree that Iran must never possess nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said Monday. “My policy as prime minister of Israel is clear. I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel, and Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression, and terrorism.”
And in Washington, Psaki said she expected that the talks with Iran would resume Wednesday as planned.
“We expect them to be difficult and long,” she said. “We have not been given any indication about a change in participation for these discussions.”