Israeli ‘cyberattack’ blamed for explosions at Iran nuclear site


Israel has been accused of being responsible for two explosions at Iranian facilities over the past week, with a Kuwaiti newspaper reporting on Friday that the nation was behind the blasts.

The Al-Jareeda daily reported that an unnamed senior source said that the two explosions – one related to uranium enrichment, the other for missile production – resulted from an Israeli cyber-attack at the mostly-underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility early on Thursday morning. 

The mystery source claims that the attacks are expected to set Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme back by approximately two months.

According to the Kuwaiti newspaper, Israeli stealth fighter jets bombed another site in Parchin believed to house a missile production facility on Friday.

This is an area of particular alarm in the Jewish state amid the increasingly sophisticated nature of the missiles and rockets in Iranian proxies, notably Lebanon’s Hezbollah, according to The Times of Israel.

Neither of the claims made by the newspaper have been confirmed by Israeli officials, however, who have remained quiet on the reports.

The alleged cyber-attacks come after Iran reportedly attempted to hack into Israel’s water infrastructure in April, as part of a string of retaliatory attacks made by both nations on the other. The effort was reportedly halted by Israel’s cyber defences. 

The goal of the attempted attack was to release dangerous levels of chlorine into Israeli water supplies, or otherwise interrupt the flow of water throughout the country, according to The Times of Israel.  

The alleged attacks come as the United States continues its campaign of so called ‘maximum pressure’ by applying crushing sanctions on Iran and its officials. 

A fire has destroyed a building at an Iranian nuclear complex around 200 miles south of Tehran, pictured 

Iran has denied anyone was injured by the resulting fire and explosion at it’s nuclear research plant 200 miles from Tehran. US-based analysts noticed the explosion at the facility which has been identified as a new centrifuge production plant. 

Iran is enriching uranium at a quicker rate following the collapse of a deal signed in Paris. 

The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran admitted there had been ‘an incident’ but insisted it only affected an ‘industrial shed’. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency claimed the damage could have been caused by Iranian or American saboteurs. 

The incident happened at the facility in Natanz, which had been hit in sabotage attacks in the past. 

The news agency claimed: ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far has tried to prevent intensifying crises and the formation of unpredictable conditions and situations,’ the commentary said. But ‘the crossing of red lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran by hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the U.S., means that strategy … should be revised.’

A photograph later released by the atomic energy agency and state TV video showed a brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.

An online video and messages were previously released purportedly claiming responsibility for the fire that analysts say damaged a centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site. Tehran has also previously insisted it knew the cause but would not make it public due to ‘security reasons.’

The multiple, different claims by a self-described group called the ‘Cheetahs of the Homeland’ included language used by several exiled Iranian opposition organizations. They also focused almost entirely on Iran’s nuclear program, viewed by Israel as a danger to its very existence.

The disparate messages, as well as the fact that Iran experts have never heard of the group before, raised questions about whether Natanz again had faced sabotage by a foreign nation as it had during the Stuxnet computer virus outbreak believed to have been engineered by the U.S. and Israel. Tehran’s reaction so far shows Iranian officials are increasingly taking the possibility seriously.

‘If it is proven that our country has been attacked by cyberattacks, we will respond,’ warned Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali, the head of Iran’s military unit in charge of combating sabotage, according to a report late Thursday by the Mizan news agency.

Pictured: A satellite image released by Planet Labs and annotated shows the Natanz Duel Enrichment Plant in Iran

Pictured: A satellite image released by Planet Labs and annotated shows the Natanz Duel Enrichment Plant in Iran

Iranian officials have sought to downplay the fire, which erupted early on Thursday, calling it only an ‘incident’ that affected an ‘industrial shed.’ However, a released photo and video of the site broadcast by Iranian state television showed a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.

Two U.S.-based analysts who spoke to The Associated Press, relying on released pictures and satellite images, identified the affected building as Natanz’s new Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center.

Iranian nuclear officials did not respond to a request for comment from the AP on the analysts’ findings. However, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency quoted the spokesman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council as saying authorities know the cause of the fire.

‘Due to some security considerations, the cause and manner of the accident will be announced at the appropriate time,’ Keyvan Khosravi reportedly said on Friday, without elaborating.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said none of its inspectors were at Natanz at the time of the fire and ‘that the location where the incident occurred does not contain nuclear materials.’

Before news of the fire became public Thursday, the BBC’s Persian service says its journalists received emails from the self-proclaimed ‘Cheetahs of the Homeland’ claiming an attack at Natanz.

A video claimed the group included ‘soldiers from the heart of regime’s security organizations’ who wanted to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran long has maintained its atomic program is for peaceful purposes. 

The building is part of the complex where the Iranian regime houses its centrifuges for uranium enrichment, increasing the potency of the metal so it could be used to make a bomb

The building is part of the complex where the Iranian regime houses its centrifuges for uranium enrichment, increasing the potency of the metal so it could be used to make a bomb

However, the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has said that Iran ‘carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’ in a ‘structured program’ through the end of 2003.

The video and one written statement also referred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as ‘zahhak,’ a monster in Persian folklore. 

But the tone across the messages clashed, with one using terminology often associated with Iran’s Mujahedeen-e-Khalq exile group, or MEK, and the video seemingly showing Iran’s Shiite theocracy as worse than the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. 

The video also included parts of the nationalist song ‘Ey Iran,’ which reformists and opposition groups both sing.

The MEK group said it was not responsible for the fire. Its statement described the blaze as a ‘reaction to the nuclear project of the religious fascism ruling Iran, which has afflicted the Iranian people (with) only poverty, repression, terrorism and war.’

Supporters of the shah’s exiled son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, did not respond to a request for comment. The AP received no response to an email sent to one address associated with the ‘Cheetahs of the Homeland’ statements.

The purported group’s name, ‘the Cheetahs of the Homeland,’ also struck some as odd, given that ‘cheetahs’ is a nickname of Iran’s national football club. 

Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist who works with The New York Times and published a book on the Mossad titled ‘Rise and Kill First,’ questioned why an Iranian opposition group would name itself that.

‘It’s highly unlikely that a serious opposition movement would use such a name, which is probably exactly what the people who came up with it, were aiming people to think,’ Bergman wrote Friday on Twitter in English, without elaborating. He also tweeted a similar message in Hebrew.

Suspicion over the incident immediately fell on Israel, including in a commentary published by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency Thursday.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, who viewed the ‘Cheetahs of the Homeland’ video, said any domestic group that managed to penetrate Iran’s heavily guarded nuclear facilities would be unlikely to risk being captured by distributing such a video. 

He said ‘it’s difficult to know’ if Israel’s Mossad or another foreign intelligence agency produced the video.

‘It could be a foreign intelligence agency, in order to sow discord in Iran … or maybe it’s a false flag by the Iranian regime in order to crack down,’ Javedanfar said.

The video did, however, call it the Kashan nuclear site, rather than Natanz. Kashan is a nearby city once home to a large, historic Jewish community. Iranians uniformly call the nuclear site Natanz.

Destroying a centrifuge assembly facility could greatly impact Iran’s ability to more-quickly enrich greater amounts of uranium, which would be a goal for either Israel or the U.S.

Iran had begun experimenting with advanced centrifuge models in the wake of the U.S. unilaterally withdrawing two years ago from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. 

However, it took years for Iran to perfect its first-generation IR-1 centrifuge off designs it purchased from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s black market network. It’s unclear if Iran has another similar-size assembly facility.

Tensions between Iran and Israel are always high, but remote attacks and subsequent retaliations have been increasing between the two nations. Above, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wearing face mask sits in his office during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, 30 June 2020

Tensions between Iran and Israel are always high, but remote attacks and subsequent retaliations have been increasing between the two nations. Above, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wearing face mask sits in his office during a meeting in Tehran, Iran, 30 June 2020

The fact that the Natanz fire also comes less than a week after an explosion in an area east of Tehran that analysts believe hides an underground tunnel system and missile production sites also raises suspicions.

The Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor said either incident could ‘have been the result of a domestic group acting with or without foreign support, or the result of a U.S. or Israeli cyber attack.’

‘If there is a campaign by the United States, Israel and/or local groups in Iran underway, then Iran is likely to eventually respond in kind, potentially against Western targets in the Persian Gulf,’ Stratfor warned. 

Data collected by a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite suggested the fire broke out around 2 a.m. local time in the northwest corner of the Natanz compound. Flames from the blaze were bright enough to be detected by the satellite from space.

‘There are physical and financial damages and we are investigating to assess,’ Kamalvandi told Iranian state television. ‘Furthermore, there has been no interruption in the work of the enrichment site. Thank God, the site is continuing its work as before.’

The site of the fire corresponds to a newly opened centrifuge production facility, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. He said he relied on satellite images and a state TV program on the facility to locate the building, which sits in Natanz’s northwest corner.

Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5 per cent purity, above the terms of the nuclear deal. Above, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi from Argentina addresses the media during a news conference during a general confernce of the IAEA, at the International Center in Vienna, Austria in 2019

Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5 per cent purity, above the terms of the nuclear deal. Above, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi from Argentina addresses the media during a news conference during a general confernce of the IAEA, at the International Center in Vienna, Austria in 2019

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security similarly said the fire struck the production facility. His institute previously wrote a report on the new plant, identifying it from satellite pictures while it was under construction and later built.

Iranian nuclear officials did not respond to a request for comment about the analysts’ comments. However, any damage to the facility would be a major setback, said Hinz, who called the fire ‘very, very suspicious.’

‘It would delay the advancement of the centrifuge technology quite a bit at Natanz,’ Hinz said. ‘Once you have done your research and development, you can´t undo that research and development. Targeting them would be very useful’ for Iran’s adversaries.

Th site includes underground facilities buried under some 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete, which offers protection from airstrikes.

Natanz, also known as the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, is among the sites now monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency after Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

The IAEA said in a statement it was aware of reports of the fire. ‘We currently anticipate no impact on the IAEA’s safeguards verification activities,’ the Vienna-based agency said.

Natanz become a point of controversy last year as Iranian officials refused to allow an IAEA inspector into the facility in October. Above, Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi

Natanz become a point of controversy last year as Iranian officials refused to allow an IAEA inspector into the facility in October. Above, Iran’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi

Located in Iran’s central Isfahan province, Natanz hosts the country´s main uranium enrichment facility. There, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium. 

Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5 per cent purity, above the terms of the nuclear deal, but far below weapons-grade levels of 90 per cent. It also has conducted tests on advanced centrifuges, according to the IAEA.

However, Natanz did become a point of controversy last year as Iranian officials refused to allow an IAEA inspector into the facility in October after allegedly testing positive for suspected traces of explosive nitrates. 

Nitrates are a common fertilizer. However, when mixed with proper amounts of fuel, the material can become an explosive as powerful as TNT. Swab tests, common at airports and other secure facilities, can detect its presence on the skin or objects.

Natanz also remains of particular concern to Tehran as it has been targeted for sabotage before. The Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation, disrupted and destroyed centrifuges at Natanz amid the height of Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Satellite photos show an explosion last Friday that rattled Iran´s capital came from an area in its eastern mountains that analysts believe hides an underground tunnel system and missile production sites. Iran has blamed the blast on a gas leak in what it describes a ‘public area.’

Another explosion from a gas leak at a medical clinic in northern Tehran killed 19 people Tuesday.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Israel´s Institute for National Security Studies and former Iran analyst for the prime minister’s office, said he didn’t know if there was an active sabotage campaign targeting Tehran. However, he said the series of explosions in Iran feel like ‘more than a coincidence.’

‘Theoretically speaking, Israel, the U.S. and others have an interest to stop this Iran nuclear clock or at least show Iran there´s a price in going that way,’ he said. ‘If Iran won´t stop, we might see more accidents in Iran.’

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