September 18, 2020
An explosion two months ago at a key Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz was meant to send a message of determination to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The purpose of the attack was to send an unambiguous deterrent message that progress toward a nuclear weapon beyond certain redlines would not be tolerated.
In addition, the Post has confirmed foreign reports that the explosion was caused by physical sabotage as opposed to exclusively cyberwarfare.
To date, Iran has made multiple announcements but has not accused Israel at an official level, and Jerusalem has never officially taken responsibility, although multiple ministers have dropped hints.
At the time, a previously unknown group called the Homeland Cheetahs claimed that it was a group of Iranian dissidents that had undertaken the attack.
However, that group has not been heard from since. Experts speculated that the group was a cover for the true attacker or at most a mixed operation of Iranian dissidents with a powerful foreign backer like Israel, the United States.
Apparently, though, one of the goals of the attack was that it be carried out in a public and loud way to send a message to the Iranian leadership, even if only unofficially.
Though Tehran initially played down the Natanz and other explosions, within days satellite footage revealed that the impact was far more serious than the regime was claiming.
By July 9, Institute for Science and International Security president David Albright had told the Post that around three-quarters of the advanced centrifuge assembly facility had been destroyed, setting back advanced centrifuge development by one to two years.
Furthermore, the Post has confirmed that official levels of the Israeli government agree with this assessment and believe that the attack has dealt a major setback to Iran’s development of advanced centrifuges.
Shortly after the explosion, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi hinted at Israeli involvement. Further, last month Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen responded to the Post’s questions about the attack, saying, “We know what is happening everywhere” in the Islamic Republic, and “Whoever wants to threaten Israel’s existence will have no immunity anywhere…. I say to Iran, don’t put Israel’s determination to the test.”
According to a report by the Albright think tank, “High-resolution commercial satellite imagery… shows that the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center at the Natanz Enrichment Site has suffered significant, extensive and likely irreparable damage to its main assembly hall section.”
Further, the report says, “This new facility, inaugurated in 2018, was critical to the mass production of advanced centrifuges, in particular the assembly of rotor assemblies, the rapidly spinning part of the centrifuge and its most crucial component.”
In terms of rolling back Tehran’s future nuclear program plans, the report adds, “An annex to the building was intended to assemble electrical components of centrifuges, including motors – another important component of centrifuges.”
The report said that “the visible damage is such that the entire building will likely have to be razed and rebuilt from scratch.”
It added that “advanced centrifuge rotor assemblies are typically assembled in ‘clean rooms,’ an expensive-to-build environment free from dust and other contaminants,” and a 2018 video showed what appear to be clean rooms at the facility in question.
Other destroyed items that could be hard to replace could include: “balancing machines, specialized rotor assembly equipment, measuring equipment, and centrifuge test stands.”
Albright estimated that the facility would take at least a year to rebuild, but likely longer since it took six years, from 2012-2018, to build it and become operational the first time.
Although the explosion will not prevent Iran from performing advanced centrifuge research at other locations, Albright said that only the Natanz facility had the potential capability to mass-produce advanced centrifuges in the thousands.
Most importantly, it is a major setback for moving forward with the IR-4, the only advanced centrifuge that has been expected to show more immediate promise.
Iran has a variety of other advanced centrifuges, which it shows off for public relations, but which have failed completely or are still far from fully operational.
The Natanz explosion and about one dozen other explosions between June and August came 14 months after Iran started to violate the 2015 nuclear deal’s limits, with estimates that it is four to six months from being able to produce a nuclear bomb.
The Jerusalem Post