Iran has seen a series of “mysterious” incidents at its strategic nuclear, military and civilian installations recently, with some 12 having been recorded in a series that culminated on Sunday at a half-century-old power station in the central province of Isfahan.
Official statements from Iran have been contradictory, and no country or party has claimed responsibility for the incidents which have resulted in unexplained explosions and blazes.
The Islamic Republic’s official media, as well as some of its figureheads, have blamed the US and Israel for the series of incidents, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has spoken of Tehran’s “strategic patience” and mentioned no particular culprit.
The New York Times quoted an anonymous “Middle Eastern official” as saying it was probable Israel was behind the incidents. The US Vox Website said head of Israeli intelligence Yossi Cohen had likely orchestrated the attacks, but it presented no proof of the accusation.
The Isfahan power plant blaze came a day after the burning of seven ships in the port of Bushehr on the Gulf. Neither incident resulted in casualties.
The first in the series of incidents took place on 26 June in fires at the Shiraz power station, reportedly because of hot weather, and at the Khojir missiles facility near Tehran, reportedly due to a gas leak.
The Iranian media reported the authorities as saying that the gas leak had taken place at the military complex of Parchin, even as satellite images revealed the damage was at Khojir.
Tehran had refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the Parchin complex, where Iran is believed to be conducting experiments related to its nuclear programme.
A few days after the Shiraz fire, an explosion at a medical facility in Iran killed 19 people. Then a building under construction near the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility also exploded, with the authorities claiming that no damage had been caused to the building housing the country’s centrifuge-assembly centre, vital to its nuclear programme.
However, a report from US think tank the Institute for Science and International Security said the Natanz facility had suffered “significant, extensive and likely irreparable, damage to its main assembly hall section.”
The report added that “the building’s replacement would be expected to take at least a year, if not longer… Its destruction must be viewed as a major setback to Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges on a mass scale for years to come.”
The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) said the fire that broke out at Natanz was the result of sabotage “by an enemy state, particularly the Zionist regime and the US.” The head of the Iranian Civil Defence Authority also promised “to retaliate” if it turned out Iran had been the victim of an electronic attack.
In response to the question of whether Israel was behind the incidents, the Israeli foreign minister answered that “we take actions that are better left unsaid.” Tehran has claimed that Israel and the US are behind events in the Islamic Republic, but it has stopped short of making specific accusations against Tel Aviv.
The Israeli media quoted Israeli officials as saying that the number of centrifuges Iran had declared “will allow it to build not one nuclear bomb, but an entire arsenal”.
Israel has a long history of targeting nuclear programmes in the region, starting with the 1981 aerial attack on the Osirak facility in Iraq. Between 2010 and 2012, Israel also assassinated at least four Iranian atomic scientists, including Mustafa Ahmedi Roushan.
In a cyberattack, Israel destroyed at least 1,000 Iranian centrifuges out of a total of 6,000 using computer viruses such as Stuxnet and Flame. In 2018, Israel stole detailed documents on the Iranian nuclear programme, the majority of which relating to research conducted prior to 2003.
In addition to Iran, Israel has also conducted attacks against sites in Syria that Tel Aviv has said were “facilities with ties to the Iranian nuclear programme.”
On 4 July, the power station at Zarghan in Iran exploded, this supplying the region of Khuzestan on the border with Iraq with electricity. On the same day, a petrochemicals factory in Karun on the Gulf exploded, leaving a number of workers injured.
On 7 July, an explosion took place in an industrial area near Tehran, and three days later a residential building was destroyed. “Gas leaks” resulted in two buildings being destroyed in Tehran on 11 July, and there was a third in Mashhad on 13 July and an oil leak in Mahshahr.
A number of reports have stated that an “electronic war” between Iran and Israel started in May with the announcement of a failed attack on the Israeli water network. Israel retaliated with a cyberattack against the port of Shahid Rajaee, through which pass 50 per cent of Iran’s imports and exports.
The attack resulted in blockages in the port’s channels, causing enormous damage.
These incidents are believed to be a continuation of the “maximum pressure” policy that US President Donald Trump has adopted against Iran to force the country to alter its stances on Middle East issues and bring a halt to its nuclear programme.
The policy was first adopted in 2018, when Washington withdrew from the nuclear agreement that Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had signed in 2015. Earlier this year, Qassem Al-Suleimani, leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was assassinated in Iraq. There has also been a tightening of the US sanctions against Iran.
The US is backing an ongoing Iraqi-Saudi rapprochement at the expense of Iran, evident in the policies being adopted by new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Al-Kadhimi has been supported by a months-long uprising against Iranian influence in Iraq, during which hundreds of people have been killed.
It appears that a conflict between Iran and Israel has now begun, with many fearing that Iran may use its proxies such as the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah to respond to Israel, pushing the region towards further conflict.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly