The US and Israel have denied involvement following an explosion in an Iranian missile complex, but speculation persists of cyber-sabotage. Credit: ARS Technica.

Was it just a gas tank explosion, or an act of cyber-sabotage?

An Iranian general would not rule out that a massive explosion east of Tehran last week was caused by “hacking,” amidst much speculation by military analysts.

Both the United States and Israel deny involvement.

Iranian authorities had attempted to downplay the blast — which tore through a missile factory east of Tehran — as a gas tank explosion at a different industrial park. But one official refused to rule out an act of cyber-sabotage, Matthew Petti of National Interest reported.

“On the explosion of the Parchin gas facilities, it has been mentioned that the incident was caused by hacking the center’s computer systems,” said Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, head of the Passive Defense Institution, at a conference on anti-chemical weapons defense.

“But until we come to a conclusion on the dimensions of this incident and the claim, we cannot comment.”

The explosion damaged the Khojir missile production complex, according to satellite imagery, but Iranian authorities have insisted that it actually took place at the Parchin industrial park forty kilometers away, The National Interest reported.

The apparent coverup — along with international tensions around Iran’s missile program —have raised suspicions of foul play.

Iran’s missiles were a topic of debate at the UN Security Council on Tuesday, which was debating whether to extend an international arms embargo on Iran, The National Interest reported. The US is using a recent Iranian space launch to argue that Iran is pursuing a dangerous ballistic missile program.

The US and Israel have worked together to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program in the past, using motorcycle-borne assassins to kill scientists and a cyberweapon called Stuxnet to damage nuclear facilities. A site like Khojir would fall within the crosshairs of a similar campaign aimed at Iran’s conventional missiles.

Israeli journalist Barak Ravid asked US envoy Brian Hook about last week’s explosion during an interview for Channel 13.

“We don’t have any observations to make on that,” replied Hook, the State Department official in charge of Iranian affairs. He added that Iran’s missile program is “very concerning.”

Israeli officials also told the New York Times that they were not involved.

“There is a motivation, when you’re using a cyberweapon, to leave attribution murky … to keep cyber conflict below the threshold of armed conflict, and to minimize the risk of geopolitical fallout,” said Daniel Frey, a cyber threat investigator at Advanced Intelligence LLC.

Stuxnet was an extremely sophisticated weapon designed to evade detection. It interfered with the control systems for nuclear centrifuges, causing them to spin too quickly or too slow, while giving false readings to the controller, The National Interest reported.

Things have changed, however, since the Stuxnet era.

Iran and North Korea are now “second to Russia and China” in terms of cyber-warfare capabilities, Frey said. “It is clear that Iran now poses a threat to critical infrastructure, and the US government itself recognizes this.”

Ronen Solomon of IntelliTimes, an intelligence blog, who was among the first to identify the Khojir missile facility as the site of the explosion, noted that it did “little damage.”

But he noted it was “a vast facility,” and as part of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, it has been the target of US economic sanctions, FirstPost reported.

If the explosion was an act of sabotage, some analysts noted, it was carefully designed to not invite retaliation because damage was so minimal. But in the past, there have been small attacks designed to create fear among Iranians that foreign powers had insiders in the country’s sensitive military programs.

Iran’s missile program has long been a target of Israeli intelligence agencies. A large explosion in 2011, which killed a key architect of Iran’s missile program, is widely viewed as an act of sabotage, FirstPost reported.

But this explosion may have been different. Two Israeli intelligence services that operate outside Israel’s borders, the Mossad and the Israel Defence Forces intelligence unit, said they were investigating the episode and had not yet reached a final conclusion on whether it was an accident or sabotage.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies identified Khojir as the “site of numerous tunnels, some suspected of use for arms assembly.”

Large industrial buildings at the site visible from satellite photographs also suggest missile assembly being conducted there, The Washington Post reported.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency says Iran overall has the largest underground facility program in the Middle East.

Such sites “support most facets of Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities, including the operational force and the missile development and production program,” the DIA said in 2019.