The latest events in Iran, in particular the explosion at the nuclear facility in Natanz on Thursday, represent a significant rise in tensions in the region, even if the various countries are still preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences.
Figures in Iran have already blamed Israel for the explosion, saying it may have been caused by a cyberattack. If that is so, according to past reports of exchanges between the two sides, it would suggest that Iran will try to respond, possibly with yet another cyberstrike of its own.
The chain of incidents in Iran began in the middle of last week, with an explosion at a weapons development facility in Parchin. It was followed by an explosion at a site in Tehran that was described as a hospital, and that resulted in casualties. The Natanz explosion came later, and on Saturday a fire was reported at a power station in the southern Iranian region of Ahvzaz, close to the Iraqi border.
The temptation to draw a connection among all of these incidents is great, but it’s not clear that all were the result of planned attacks or that all were planned by the same entity. The power station, for one, is very far from the other sites, and it’s not known to be connected to any Iranian military program. It was only regarding the Natanz incident that Iranian officials, speaking to reporters from Reuters, pointed the finger at Israel.
The underground facility that was damaged in Natanz is at the heart of the debate on Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement. It’s where the newer, faster centrifuges that accelerate the rate of uranium enrichment are assembled. The agreement that the Obama administration championed, which was signed in 2015, left Iran with an estimated “breakout time” to the creation of a nuclear bomb of about one year.
In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, after being persuaded to do so by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Tehran waited for about a year, then began a series of violations of the terms of the agreement, without formally renouncing it. The most disturbing development, to the United States and to Israel, has to do with the improvement to uranium enrichment and advances in accumulating the material needed for a nuclear bomb. Western intelligence agencies estimate that the breakout time has been halved (although Iran has not yet made a strategic decision in this regard).
It can be assumed that the Natanz attack had a dual purpose: first, to send Tehran the message that there is a cost to its conduct, which includes not only the nuclear advances but also the manufacture of long-range missiles and aid to terror organizations in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and second, on the practical level, to disrupt Iran’s renewed progress toward a nuclear bomb.
It’s not yet clear how much damage was done to the Natanz facility. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security analyzed satellite images from the site and determined that the fire was in a centrifuge assembly workshop adjacent to the enrichment facility. It described the workshop as “a critical part of Iran’s plan to deploy thousands of advanced centrifuges.”
The executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, wrote on his Twitter account Friday that “If Israel is accused by official elements [in Iran], this would call for operational preparedness for the possibility of an Iranian cyber response, the firing of missiles from Syria or a terror attack from abroad.” His tweet preceded the Reuters report.
Israel and Iran, it should be recalled, exchanged cyberattacks just two months ago, according to foreign media reports. It began with an Iranian attempt to hack into computers that control the chlorine levels in Israel’s drinking water. The attempt presumably failed, but a few days later there were reports of an Israeli cyberattack that disrupted for a number of days activities at Bandar Abbas, an important Iranian seaport.
It appears that all of the parties involved are acting out of an awareness of a window of opportunity that is expected to end in November with the U.S. presidential election. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and then pursued a policy of “maximum economic pressure” on Iran, in the form of sanctions on the state and on foreign countries trading with it. In early January, when the new coronavirus first appeared, the United States also took the exceptional measure of assassinating Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, during a visit to Iraq. If it turns out that the Americans are connected to the Natanz attack, it will signal that Trump is ready to get tougher with the Iranians in the four months remaining until the election. Recent polls predict that he will lose to Joe Biden in a landslide.
Netanyahu has for a long time called publicly for harsher treatment of Iran, in part over its nuclear violations. At the same time, there have been reports of the acceleration of Israeli strikes on Iranian interests in Syria, including in some cases on very distant targets, near the Syria-Iraq border.
Trump and Netanyahu are each dealing with unprecedented economic and public-health crises that also threaten their political futures. Perhaps they may be taking a tougher stance against Iran. That could have broad consequences for the region, even if all three countries are mired deep in the coronavirus crisis (and it seems that all three are failing spectacularly at coping with the pandemic).