Mystery Blasts: Iran Confirms Target Was Advanced Uranium-Enrichment Centrifuges

By Patrick Goodenough | July 6, 2020 | 4:39am EDT
The scene of a deadly explosion at a medical center in Tehran last week. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
The scene of a deadly explosion at a medical center in Tehran last week. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Iran reported another in a series of unexplained explosions at the weekend, as officials confirmed that a previous incident last Thursday had targeted a key facility in the regime’s nuclear program, a center where advanced centrifuges are being developed.

Saturday’s blast took place at a power station in Ahvaz in southwestern Iran, triggering a “massive blaze” that took firefighters two hours to bring under control, the official IRNA news agency reported. No injuries were reported in the fire, which temporarily disrupted electricity supply in the oil-rich Khuzestan province.

About 70 miles away, a chlorine gas leak occurred at a petrochemicals plant near the Persian Gulf coast, requiring 70 workers to be treated for chlorine inhalation.

They were the fourth and fifth unusual incidents reported in nine days, prompting suspicions of a deliberate sabotage campaign by enemies of the regime. Iran has in the past accused the United States and Israel of trying to disrupt its nuclear program in particular.

In the deadliest of the incidents, early last week, 19 people were killed and 14 injured in a blast and fire at a medical center in Tehran, blamed variously on a gas leak and an oxygen tank explosion.

Several days earlier, authorities also blamed a gas leak for an explosion at a missile facility at Parchin military base. U.S. defense officials regard the regime’s ballistic missile program as one of the most dangerous security threats in the region.

And on Thursday, a fire erupted at Natanz, home to a uranium enrichment plant central to the nuclear program.

Supreme National Security Council of Iran spokesman Keivan Khosravi said the following day that experts had determined the cause of the fire following “a detailed assessment of the impacts, quality and extent of the damages.”

But he said details would be made public at the appropriate time, “due to security considerations.”

Both Khosravi and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) played down the extent of the damage, and said there were no nuclear materials at the site, initially described as an “industrial shed.”

Iran's national flag flies at a nuclear power plant. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
Iran's national flag flies at a nuclear power plant. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

But on Sunday, IRNA quoted AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi as saying the building was in fact a center for assembling advanced centrifuges. (The Institute for Science and International Security, which closely studies Iran’s nuclear program, said earlier that the damaged site was a centrifuge assembly workshop which it first identified in 2017.)

Centrifuges are devices that spin at high speeds to enrich uranium, producing fuel for nuclear power plants or, when enriched to very high levels, for nuclear weapons.

The 1995 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a response to the international community’s suspicions that the regime was developing a nuclear weapons capability under the cover of a civilian program – restricted Iran to operating a specified number of first-generation centrifuges known as “IR-1,” and to enriching a limited quantity of uranium to a maximum of 3.67 percent.

After the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran began to take steps away from its obligations, including increasing the purity of enrichment to 4.5 percent; increasing the number of centrifuges operating; and beginning to operate a range of more advanced centrifuges. Those moves were confirmed again most recently in an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring report last month.

Kamalvandi said the damage caused to equipment in the blaze at Natanz would possibly cause delays to the operation of advanced centrifuges there.

Uncorroborated claims of responsibility online for a purported cyber-attack at Natanz prompted the head of the regime’s civil defense division, Gholamreza Jalal, to warn that Iran would retaliate against any perpetrator of a cyber-attack on its nuclear facilities.

“Responding to cyber-attacks is part of the country’s defense might,” Jalali said. “If it is proven that our country has been targeted by a cyber-attack, we will respond.”

In a weekend radio interview, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in response to questions about the blasts in Iran, “Not every event that happens in Iran is necessarily connected to us.”

He also reiterated Israel’s concerns about the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, to the region and the world, and said “we will do everything to prevent that from happening.”

In 2010, Natanz was targeted with a sophisticated computer virus named Stuxnet, which experts assessed destroyed around 1,000 centrifuges out of about 9,000 then operating there. The regime blamed the United States and Israel for what appeared to be an attempt to retard its nuclear activities.

The IAEA confirmed at the weekend that Iranian authorities had reported Thursday’s fire at Natanz and had stated that “there had been no nuclear material or other radioactive material in the building.”

“Iran said the cause was not yet known, adding there were no injuries or radioactive contamination,” said the U.N. atomic agency, whose inspectors regularly visit the site, but were not present at the time of the fire.

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