Natanz Sidelined by Another Israeli Attack

Iran's top nuclear facility is offline again.

Iran’s main nuclear facility at Natanz has had its power disrupted, likely for months. It appears to be a Mossad attack. Israel is decidedly not denying it.

WSJ (“Iran Says Its Foes Targeted Nuclear Plant to Derail Potential Talks With U.S.“):

Iran said saboteurs caused a blackout at the country’s main nuclear-enrichment plant, accusing the alleged culprits of attempting to derail informal talks with the U.S. on reviving a 2015 nuclear accord that could pave the way for rolling back sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Tehran didn’t disclose any details about the electrical malfunction at Natanz, which it said took place Sunday, or the extent of any damage it caused. Nor did Iranian authorities say who they thought might be responsible, though Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic agency, said Iran reserved the right to retaliate. He called the incident an act of “nuclear terrorism” amid heightened tensions over the tentative discussions on Iran’s nuclear program.

Israeli media, quoting what they described as Western intelligence sources, said Israeli intelligence agency Mossad had orchestrated a cyberattack at the Natanz site, causing severe damage.

Israeli officials declined to respond to the reports that Israel was behind the alleged attack at Natanz. In Washington, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council declined to comment.

Iran and the remaining five parties to the 2015 nuclear accord converged in Vienna last week to negotiate a road map for the U.S. to return to the agreement, which the Trump administration left in 2018. Their objective is to find a way for President Biden’s administration to lift sanctions on Iran if Tehran agrees to comply with the 2015 pact, which was developed to curtail the growth of Iran’s nuclear capability, and keep it from developing nuclear-weapons technology.

Iran ramped up its nuclear activities after the U.S. left the accord, including moves to enrich uranium at a higher purity than the deal allows. Natanz is at the center of Iran’s efforts, and was relaunched Saturday after a devastating explosion and fire in the summer of 2020, which Iran also blamed on saboteurs. Iran on Saturday carried out tests on a new generation of centrifuges.

Israel is opposed to the nuclear deal, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says imposes only a temporary cap on Iran’s nuclear capability and allows Tehran to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Israeli officials have said they would seek to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions by any means necessary, including covert operations, if they think that international efforts to check Iran’s ambitions are falling short.

Amos Yadlin, the former chief of Israeli military intelligence, however said in an interview with the country’s Army Radio Sunday that Israel may be pursuing short-term goals without considering the longer-term impact they may have on relations with the U.S.

That would, to put it mildly, not be unprecedented. And it may or may not be a sheer coincidence that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel when the strike occurred.

The Guardian (“Israel appears to confirm it carried out cyberattack on Iran nuclear facility“) emphasizes the degree to which Israel seems to be claiming responsibility.

Israel appeared to confirm claims that it was behind a cyber-attack on Iran’s main nuclear facility on Sunday, which Tehran’s nuclear energy chief described as an act of terrorism that warranted a response against its perpetrators.

The apparent attack took place hours after officials at the Natanz reactor restarted spinning advanced centrifuges that could speed up the production of enriched uranium, in what had been billed as a pivotal moment in the country’s nuclear programme.

As Iranian authorities scrambled to deal with a large-scale blackout at Natanz, which the country’s Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged had damaged the electricity grid at the site, the Israeli defence chief, Aviv Kochavi, said the country’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy”.

Israel imposed no censorship restrictions on coverage as it had often done after similar previous incidents and the apparent attack was widely covered by Israeli media. Public radio took the unusual step of claiming that the Mossad intelligence agency had played a central role.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said later Sunday that “the struggle against Iran and its proxies and the Iranian armament efforts is a huge mission”.

“The situation that exists today will not necessarily be the situation that will exist tomorrow,” he added, without elaborating.

NYT (“Blackout Hits Iran Nuclear Site in What Appears to Be Israeli Sabotage“) adds:

The blackout injected new uncertainty into diplomatic efforts that began last week to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal repudiated by the Trump administration.

[…]

Two intelligence officials briefed on the damage said it had been caused by a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified Israeli operation, said that the explosion had dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production.

If so, Iran’s leverage in new talks sought by the Biden administration to restore the nuclear agreement could be significantly compromised. Iran has said it will take increasingly strong actions prohibited under the agreement until the sanctions imposed by President Donald J. Trump have been rescinded.

All of the early reports suggest it was a “cyberattack” but the fact that there seems to have been an explosion seems to mitigate against that. More to follow, I suppose.

At first blush, this seems like good news. It both sets back a nuclear program nobody outside Iran wants to succeed and makes it more likely that the Biden administration can get Teheran back into JCPOA.

MIT’s Vipin Narang thinks otherwise, tweeting “Setting back part of Iran’s nuclear program by nine months but hardening its resolve to potentially reconstitute its nuclear weapons program seems like a bad trade unless you’re supremely confident you can keep sabotaging it indefinitely before a nuke gets out of the barn.” But, honestly, it’s not as if the regime lacked “resolve” previously.

FILED UNDER: Iran, Iranian Nuclear Program, Israel, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    If Iran had resolve, they would have nukes already. They don’t want nukes, they want security.

    This bolsters the hard-liners in Iran, and weakens those who want a less combative relationship.

    Also, what is a reasonable, proportionate response for Iran here? Would a rocket attack against the Mossad headquarters be justified? If not, why not?

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  2. Raoul says:

    If the Iranians are said to have resolve to acquire nuclear weapons like you said, do you really believe a temporary power outage is going to prevent them? The problem with Israel actions is that they feed into the rejectionists camps of all sides and I would venture to guess that that’s worse for the Israeli population in the long term.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    All of the early reports suggest it was a “cyberattack” but the fact that there seems to have been an explosion seems to mitigate against that.

    Not necessarily. StuxNet was a cyberattack that caused the Iranian centrifuges to spin up to destructive velocities. It was a neat* piece of sabotage. First, malware was introduced to PCs all over the world, not just in Iran. A very small percentage of these PCs were used to program the industrial PLC controllers of the brand that were used in the centrifuges. And a very small percentage of these were used by the Iranians. Iran was careful though, and never allowed PCs to be directly connected to a running centrifuge. Instead, they did routine updates via a USB stick, so StuxNet transferred additional malware to the USB sticks. The malware sat dormant for months, on the assumption that eventually all the centrifuges would become infected. Finally, the it activated and very gradually, over the course of weeks, ramped up the centrifuge speeds while constantly applying a fudge factor to the speed readout so it appeared to remain constant. The fact that all the centrifuges synchronized the speedup and that it took many weeks was meant to keep anyone from hearing any changes in frequency.

    The fact that the explosion seems to have been in the electrical generating facility hints that something similar may have been used.

    *”Neat” in the clever sense. Deliberately infecting hundreds of millions of computers and untold numbers of critical industrial PLCs all over the world, friend and foe alike, was an incredibly selfish and stupid thing to do.

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  4. dazedandconfused says:

    I also think this makes another agreement less likely, not more. Not because it will harden their resolve to develop a nuke but because it makes it even more humiliating for their politicians to say they support a new agreement. I wouldn’t be the least surprised to find out that undermining the process for a new agreement had been Israel’s primary goal. Israel has good physicists, they know how very far away Iran is from having a working nuke, just like everybody else. The timing says it all. Particularly choosing to do it with Austin visiting.

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  5. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Would a rocket attack against the Mossad headquarters be justified? If not, why not?

    I don’t know about justified, but it’s likely the IAF can hurt them worse than the whole Iranian military can hurt Israel.

    Given the recent normalization with the UAE and Bahrain, and the Saudi’s willingness to let Israeli airlines to use their airspace in a limited way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the IAF could cross Saudi air space unnoticed (unofficially).

    The pride of the Iranian hardliners, and to some extent the moderates, may balk at a new deal with the US. Geopolitics makes a more compelling case for it.

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  6. Teve says:

    @MarkedMan: I was reading cryptography blogs and Wired a lot when Stuxnet was just happening, and I remember one funny incident. A lot of security firms around the globe were sifting through the code and looking for clues, was this a government, was this a group of hackers, was this one lone wolf who glued together pieces of other viruses? And some of the code had a very high-grade encryption algorithm. And while the code was being analyzed, an academic paper was published by some computer scientists who found an attack against that algorithm, that didn’t break it completely, but it made it less secure than it could’ve been. A few short weeks later, Stuxnet code found in the wild had been patched against that attack. And people in the computer security world went, “Oh, OK. This is a nation-state.” 😛

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: And, given that, aren’t the Iranians showing enormous restraint in not pursuing nuclear weapons as quickly as possible?

    And what about every other medium size regional power?

    If we don’t want massive nuclear proliferation, we need to ensure that there is a path to security that doesn’t rely on nuclear weapons. Even for Iran.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:

    aren’t the Iranians showing enormous restraint in not pursuing nuclear weapons as quickly as possible?

    Restraint? More like fear or caution. For the Israelis this is the Cuban missile crisis. The day after Israel confirms that Iran has in hand, or is about to test, a nuke, Israel attacks. And if they feel they have to, they’ll use nukes to break Iran’s capacity, and they’ll do it with the enthusiastic support of all the Arab countries.

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  9. John430 says:

    Joyner joins the Fake News Brigade. This blog article is headlined as, “Natanz Sidelined by Another Israeli Attack” Where’s the proof? Joyner goes right to a definitive claim in the headline and whistles Dixie when he has to show proof. He then says that “it appears that Israel…”.

    For a man who has had a distinguished career in American military security, he sure has flipped for the Biden Kool-Aid. Shame on you, sir.

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