Iran & Natanz: Making Sense of Confusion

A view of a damage building after a fire broke out at Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility, in Isfahan, Iran, July 2, 2020. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS)

All anyone can say with any certainty is that something very strange happened near the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz this past Saturday evening. Disturbances at Natanz have become somewhat commonplace recently, with a major fire in July 2020, followed by an explosion in April 2021 that cut off power to the facility. Both of these episodes appeared to be deliberate sabotage designed to set back Iran’s nuclear program, either by Israel or another of Iran’s neighbors who has a much clearer view of what a nuclear Iran would mean for their region. Whatever went down Saturday night about twelve miles from the enrichment plant is far murkier, and may signal that we are entering a new and even more dangerously unstable phase of the Islamic Republic’s long pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Strange indicators:

  1. The first abnormality was a dramatic flash of light following some sort of explosion, which set off nervous Internet chatter that it might have been a nuclear test. That does not appear to be accurate. Other explanations include a non-nuclear offensive electromagnetic pulse or a routine test of a new Iranian missile-defense system.
  2. The missile-defense test was only one of a shifting series of official Iranian accounts, which suggests that the regime doesn’t have any more idea of what actually happened than the rest of us. Other explanations included the detonation of an attacking drone, which would suggest an attack had been foiled.
  3. Finally, after the explosion, there were reports that the nearby villages of Shoja Abad and Ahmand Abad had been evacuated, which would not be normal after a routine missile-defense test — after all, if this had been planned and there was potential danger to nearby civilians, you would evacuate them before the test. Post-explosion evacuations suggest authorities were at least for a time worried about the stability of the enrichment plant.

This most recent episode at the accident-prone Natanz comes close on the heels of the failure of the seventh round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna initiated earlier this year by the Biden administration, which is determined to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action despite the intransigence of the Iranians, not to mention their ever-accelerating enrichment activities over the course of 2021. It is well beyond time to face the reality that the JCPOA is not any sort of meaningful restraint on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, if it ever was.

The number of observers who jumped to the conclusion that this might have been a nuclear test suggests that we can add a nuclear Iran to the twin specters of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and a Russian invasion of Ukraine that are looming in 2022, for which the Biden administration seems woefully unprepared. This week, the Israeli defense minister and Mossad chief will arrive in Washington for urgent consultations on the Iranian nuclear issue. Hopefully this time, President Biden and his team will listen to them.

Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a principal member of Vi et Arte Solutions, LLC. She served as deputy national-security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African affairs in the Trump administration.

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