An unusual explosion and fire at a critical nuclear enrichment facility in Iran on July 2 is the latest development in what has become an increasingly tense standoff between Tehran and the United States and allies. Just a few weeks earlier on June 26, a similar explosion brought production at a missile site outside Tehran to a standstill. After evaluation of the damage from the fire at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Facility, Iran and independent nuclear experts concluded that the source was likely a bomb planted near a gas line.
Damage from the fire means at least several months of delays for the Iranian enrichment program, which has dramatically increased its production since President Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, the nuclear deal with Iran spearheaded under the Obama administration. Though Natanz produces only low-grade uranium for use in electricity production, with additional enrichment this uranium could be used in nuclear warheads.
Despite these fears, international inspectors have found nothing to suggest that Iran is developing such weapons.
The recent flare up regarding Iran’s nuclear program started earlier in June, when the United States leveled charges of noncompliance against Tehran through the International Atomic Energy Agency. The resolution, drafted by Germany, France and the United Kingdom and backed by Washington, called for Iran to comply with IAEA inspectors.
In response to these allegations, China accused the United States of bullying Iran and blocked punitive measures against Tehran along with Russia. Although the IAEA adopted the resolution, it has done little to change Iranian behavior since its introduction.
With reinstated US sanctions failing to bring about nuclear compliance and diplomatic avenues blocked by allies of Tehran, the United States and Israel seem to be resorting to new methods to disrupt the country’s nuclear ambitions.
Though neither Israel nor the United States has admitted to playing any role in the events of July 2, Iranian officials were quick to level accusations against Tel Aviv; given the history of Israeli operations in Iran, these claims are not necessarily unfounded. The Stuxnet computer worm which was discovered in 2010 and designed to target Iranian nuclear facilities is widely attributed to the United States and Israel, and in January of 2018 Israeli agents pulled off a midnight raid of files and data from a warehouse in Tehran. This prior history and the sophistication of the attack at Natanz point to possible Israeli interference in the Iranian nuclear program.
If Tehran’s game plan is to outlast the Trump administration and hope for a democratic White House in November that might try to salvage the JCPOA, then the new strategy from Israel and Washington seems to be to provoke some kind of escalation before that can happen. Analysts at The Atlantic Council speculated that “[Getting a response] seems to be the intention of those in and around the Trump administration, who seek to destroy what remains of the JCPOA. It remains to be seen whether Iran will wait for US elections in November or conclude that forbearance is no longer advantageous.”
The result of the events at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Facility might cause Iran to shift its nuclear activity out of public and international attention, but it is unlikely to provoke any kind of major response. When the United States killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January, Iran retaliated with missile strikes on American bases in Iraq, but stopped short of major conflict. It stands to reason that any sabotage at Natanz would bring about a similar reaction, if not less.
Moving forward, Israel and the United States may try to take further action against Tehran in an attempt to provoke them into a confrontation.
Just following the explosion at Natanz, the U.S moved to capture Iranian oil tankers bound for Venezuela as part of the sanctions on the regime. Ultimately, this series of confrontations will be determined by Iran’s willingness to avoid escalation and patience when waiting for the U.S election. Until then, tension between the two countries will only continue to rise.