There are few doubts about who carried out the cyber-attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site last week. Usually, these highly effective operations are carried out by Israel.
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, suspicion fell immediately on Iran’s regional foe, and the Israeli media nearly uniformly reported that a devastating cyber-attack had been orchestrated by the country that had caused a blackout at Iran’s Natanz reactor.
The timing and circumstances of the attack left little doubt about who was responsible.
The attack came on the day of US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel. During the visit on Sunday, Austin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to do everything he can to stop the revival of the West’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The attack also came a few days after the start of the Vienna talks to revive the nuclear deal between Iran and the US. It came a day after Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz and the testing of its IR-9 centrifuges, which Iranian officials say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.
The nuclear deal signed in 2015 limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
US intelligence officials told the New York Times that a large explosion had completely destroyed the independent internal power system at Natanz that supplied the centrifuges inside the underground facility.
They estimated it could take at least nine months to resume enrichment.
Israeli Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi appeared to reference Iran when he said on Sunday that the Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy. They are watching us, seeing [our] abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country would “take revenge” for the attack. However, in reality the attack is a major setback for Iran.
The messages from the attack are varied yet clear. The message for the US Biden administration is that Israel, which rejects Washington’s return to the Iran nuclear deal, will defend its interests militarily, even as the US is trying to bring Iran back to the negotiation table.
The message for Iran is that Israel will not hesitate to take any action it deems needed to prevent Iran from further enriching uranium in its nuclear facilities, even if this means attacking the heart of Iran’s nuclear programme.
The message for regional powers that fear Iran’s nuclear capabilities is that Israel will defend its interests and theirs.
The cyber-attack against the Natanz facility may constitute a blow to the diplomatic efforts of the European Union, China, Russia, and the US to revive the nuclear deal with Iran.
It is also a source of embarrassment, as the US and its European allies cannot explicitly condemn Israel’s attempt to sabotage the talks with Iran that are still in their early stages.
Nonetheless, the EU warned on Monday against attempts to derail the talks to return the US to the Iran nuclear deal.
“We reject any attempts to undermine or weaken diplomatic efforts on the nuclear agreement,” EU Spokesman Peter Stano said, insisting that “we still need to clarify the facts” on events at the Iranian nuclear site.
Details remain limited about what happened early on Sunday morning at the facility, with what was initially described as a blackout bringing down the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.
But Iranian officials later described the blackout at the Natanz facility, 125 miles (200 km) south of Tehran as “nuclear terrorism.” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, did not directly blame anyone for the incident, however.
“To thwart the goals of this terrorist movement, the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to seriously improve its nuclear technology on the one hand and to lift oppressive sanctions on the other hand,” Salehi said, according to state TV.
“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasises the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the [International Atomic Energy Agency – IAEA] against this nuclear terrorism,” he added.
Power was cut across the plant’s above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls, Nuclear Programme Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. “The incident is under investigation, and we will inform you about the reasons as we find them out,” he added.
The IAEA, which monitors Iran’s nuclear activities, said it was “aware of the media reports” but declined to comment further.
Malek Shariati Niasar, a politician who speaks on behalf of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, tweeted that the incident was “very suspicious” and raised concerns about possible “sabotage and infiltration.”
Netanyahu has repeatedly described Iran as a major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.
Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.
“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East, and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the state of Israel.”
The coming days will see difficult decisions in Tehran. The attack on the Natanz reactor is a major embarrassment after the assassination of the country’s chief nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in November last year, and it will also deepen differences between reformists and hardliners over the viability of nuclear negotiations and the benefits of Iran’s restriction of its nuclear programme.
At the regional level, Iran can be expected to respond, possibly by toughening its positions in Yemen and Syria and thus raising tensions in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly