An attack on Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility on April 11 has been blamed on Israel by Iranian officials, an accusation that threatens to hamper efforts now underway to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear pact.
The apparent cyber-attack, which caused a power blackout at the plant situated eight meters underground, reportedly inflicted substantial damage to a number of centrifuges operating at the installation.
Although Iranian officials have ruled out casualties or leakage of hazardous material, anonymous American and Israeli officials quoted in media reports have conjectured that the attack may have set back Iran’s nuclear program by at least nine months.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has termed the attack an act of “nuclear terrorism” and called on the international community to side with Iran in condemning the action, of which the US has denied any involvement.
The attack could not have come at a worse diplomatic time for the JCPOA. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has intimated that the attack has the potential to derail the diplomatic maneuvering now underway to bring Iran and the US back into the pact.
Iran’s immediate response to the attack has been to announce the imminent start of uranium enrichment to 60% purity, critically close to the 90% required for manufacturing nuclear weapons, analysts say.
Iran’s new gambit to hike up its uranium enrichment to its highest level ever is a drastic departure from the terms of the nuclear deal signed in July 2015, which mandated Tehran to keep its enrichment within the bounds of 3.67%.
The Israeli daily Jerusalem Post has claimed that Mossad, the Jewish state’s national intelligence agency, was behind the attack that knocked out several centrifuges at Iran’s main enrichment facility. Asia Times could not independently confirm the report.
The Israeli government has so far clung to its traditional “deliberate ambiguity” policy and refused to confirm or deny any role in the attack. It was not the first time, though, the Natanz complex was targeted presumably by Israel.
In 2010, a sophisticated computer worm known as “Stuxnet,” reported to have been jointly developed by the US and Israel, infiltrated Natanz facility computers and took control of the machine running the centrifuges, desynchronized the velocity at which the devices spun and ruined nearly a thousand of them by prompting them to crash or self-destruct.
Stuxnet was described by the American investigative journalist Kim Zetter, who dedicated an entire book to the saga of the malware’s birth and evolution, “Countdown to Zero Day,” as the world’s first digital weapon, in the sense that it not only interfered with remote computers’ performance or stole information from them, but imposed physical damage on them.
Shortly after accomplishing its mission at Iran’s nuclear facilities, which some cyber experts argue could have spared Israel the need to militarily strike Iran’s nuclear premises, Stuxnet mutated and proliferated worldwide, contaminating thousands of computers in different countries.
In November last year, one of the highest-ranking officials of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated on the outskirts of Tehran in his heavily armored vehicle while being chaperoned by 11 bodyguards. The Iranian government incriminated Israel for the killing and vowed retaliation.
Now, with the latest episode of Iran-Israel proxy and cyber war apparently playing out at Natanz, new uncertainty is weighing on the momentum seen last week in Vienna with the beginning of new talks on JCPOA.
Many experts agree that while the Natanz attack’s fallout will not thwart the diplomatic effort, it is expected to represent a major stumbling block and add to the complexity of what was already a labyrinthine process. The attack, critics note, chimes with Israel’s desire to scupper any revival of JCPOA and any US-Iran move towards rapprochement under the new Biden administration.
Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vocally criticized Biden for his diplomatic overtures to Iran, saying he is prepared to “stand against the entire world” to block the revival of JCPOA.
When the maiden agreement was being negotiated in 2015, Netanyahu was similarly one of the deal’s few global detractors, along with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of whom lobbied the then-president Barack Obama administration to back away from talks with Tehran.
Three years later, Donald Trump did their bidding and jettisoned the deal and imposed new crippling sanctions on Iran, creating an impasse that has remained unresolved to date.
A distinguished nuclear expert told Asia Times that in light of the possibility of new efforts to scupper a new deal, Tehran and Washington should act quickly to nail down an understanding.
“In the short term, the sabotage at Natanz risks Iran hardening its positions during the Vienna talks on restoring the nuclear deal,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in the US.
“It will be critical for both Washington and Tehran to remain focused on their shared goal of returning to compliance with the accord and coordinating the necessary steps to do so as quickly as possible. The longer these talks drag out, the greater the risk that spoilers will disrupt the process,” she said.
Davenport, who is also a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues the full implementation of Iran deal is a “win-win” remedy for all parties involved.
“The recent sabotage may complicate efforts to restore the nuclear deal in the short term, but both the United States and Iran know what steps need to be taken to restore the deal and recognize that full implementation of the accord by all parties is a win-win.”
“The nuclear deal benefits US security and nonproliferation interests and Iran’s economic interests. Collapse of the deal risks a crisis that neither side can afford,” she said.
Other Iran observers argue Tehran’s response to Israel’s provocations in recent months has been measured, first because Iran is more inclined to avoid a conflagration in the region and also because it expects the Biden administration to rein in Israel.
“Up to now, Iran has been very measured in its responses to both American – under Trump – and Israeli provocations. The Iranian leadership seems to understand that blind, tit-for-tat retaliation is precisely what its opponents are trying to provoke,” said Mitchell Plitnick, a political analyst and president of the ReThinking Foreign Policy think tank.
“I would expect them to keep to that pattern and try to avoid escalation while also finding some way to respond to this attack… I would expect them to communicate, probably not publicly, to the Europeans that the Americans should restrain Israel from such actions,” he added.
Plitnick expects the Biden administration to comprehend the message that Israel should be contained, even though it remains to be seen how firm it will be with its stalwart ally.
“They’d certainly be wise to be assertive with Israel, but they may fear domestic backlash if Netanyahu decides to go public with his objections to American pressure,” he said.
Analysts and commentators with knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program postulate that acts of sabotage like the attack on April 10 usually end up having a backfire effect, rendering the inspection and monitoring of a controversial and opaque nuclear industry like Iran’s doubly difficult.
“Counterproliferation, such as the attacks we have seen on Iran’s nuclear program, usually only delay but do not derail nuclear efforts of the target state. Israel’s military attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 is probably only one case of such an attack that has successfully ended a nuclear weapons-related program,” said Oliver Meier, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.
“Quite often, such use of force has been counterproductive. The target state may respond by hardening and dispersing its nuclear facilities, thus making it even more difficult for outside states to apply coercive measures to influence such a program,” he said, adding: “Such attacks can also strengthen the hands of hardliners within the target state, thus complicating diplomacy. Both risks are real in Iran, as we have seen.”
Just a day before the explosions at Natanz, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had unveiled the country’s newest advanced centrifuges, known as IR-9s, as well as several cascades of IR-6 and IR-5 centrifuges at a ceremony marking National Nuclear Technology Day.
The unexpected feat is another violation of the JCPOA deal’s terms. Some experts say Iran is trying to secure new leverage as the new JCPOA talks get underway, while others view the exploit with anxiety.
Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University, told Asia Times the JCPOA enforced restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities “precisely because Iran was engaged in deceptive practices for decades, concealing capabilities that would allow it to move closer to a weapons threshold.”
“The new IR-9 centrifuges are reportedly 50 times more efficient than Iran’s original IR-1 machines. Upgrading commercial capabilities in routine circumstances is routine, but the Iran situation is anything but routine. Because the United States pulled out of the JCPOA, Iran began to shed its JCPOA restrictions, quite deliberatively, and the IR-9 unveiling is part of that plan,” she said.
As Iran and its negotiating partners in the P4+1, namely China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, moderated by the European Union and joined by the US, continue what is expected to be a diplomatic marathon to revive the JCPOA in an atmosphere of mistrust, some observers ask why Israel’s apparent role in trying to scupper a new deal via the Nantanz attack isn’t called on the carpet.
“The answer is, quite simply, because Israel is a close US ally and has strong relationships with many powerful countries… The United States simply does not want such investigations, nor does most of the EU, the UK, and other powerful countries, including many in the Arab world,” said Plitnick of the ReThinking Foreign Policy.
“Given that and the fact that Israel would not cooperate in any investigation unless it was sure it would be exonerated, what would be the point of such investigations?”