By David Brennan
July 15, 2020
Iran has been rocked by a series of mysterious explosions in recent weeks, prompting speculation that an outside power or internal dissident group is embarking on a sabotage campaign to undermine the regime in Tehran and slow key industrial and military research programs.
The latest explosion occurred this weekend in the capital Tehran, rocking a residential area and reportedly injuring at least one person. Authorities said it was caused by the explosion of several gas canisters being stored in the basement of the building, Reuters reported citing local media.
But the number of explosions and other incidents in just a few weeks has raised suspicions of foul play, given that several have taken place at sensitive military and industrial sites.
The most notable explosion occurred earlier this month at the Natanz nuclear site in the center of the country, around 150 miles south of Tehran.
The Natanz site housed a uranium enrichment facility where Iran produced centrifuges, a vital component in Tehran’s efforts to expand its stockpile of enriched uranium that could one day be used to create nuclear weapons.
The explosion caused major damage and, according to The New York Times, may have set Iran’s nuclear “break out time”—the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon—back several months.
The Iranian regime has long battled multiple militant insurgencies in different parts of the country, whether separatist groups among Kurdish, Baloch and Arab communities or extremist religious groups like those pledging allegiance to what remains of the Islamic State organization.
But it seems unlikely that these relatively poorly funded and armed groups could execute a successful attack on one of the most sensitive sites in the country. Likewise, it seems unlikely that any regional militant groups could coordinate a weeks-long sabotage campaign across Iran, if the series of explosions are, in fact, linked.
Israel and the U.S. are the immediate and obvious culprits for the explosion at Natanz, if it was deliberate. Iran’s state news agency IRNA noted that the Natanz damage could have been the result of sabotage “by hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the U.S.”
Both nations have been uncompromising in their efforts to block Iran’s nuclear program, and both have attacked Iranian nuclear facilities in the past.
An Israel Defense Forces spokesperson told Newsweek they had no comment on whether Israel was involved in the explosion at Natanz, or in the other explosions elsewhere in Iran. It has long been Israeli policy to neither confirm or deny any military operations.
Intelligence officials with knowledge of the blast told the Times that a bomb planted at the facility was the most likely cause. However, they noted it could also have resulted from a cyberattack causing a malfunction and subsequently the explosion.
The 2010 Israel-U.S. Stuxnet cyberattack targeted Natanz, setting back the nuclear program there significantly. It could be that this month’s explosion was another similar cyberattack.
Israel and the U.S. are constantly fighting off Iranian cyberattacks while launching operations of their own. In May, Israel’s cyber defense agency said it had thwarted a cyberattack on the national water system, thought to have been directed by Iran.
Soon after, an apparent cyberattack disrupted operations at Shahid Rajaae, a key economic and shipping hub in southern Iran that receives more than 50 percent of the country’s imports and exports.
Iranian officials blamed power shortages for the subsequent blockage of water in the canals and flooded roads around to the terminal. However, citing western intelligence sources the BBC said it may have been Israeli retaliation for the May plot.
A previously unknown group called the Homeland Cheetahs claimed responsibility for the Natanz explosion. The group claims it is made up of military and security dissidents and that it is behind multiple attacks that have so far been covered up by the Iranian authorities.
According to the BBC, the speed with which the detailed claim of responsibility was issued suggested that whoever sent it knew about the Natanz explosion in advance.
However, BBC noted the Homeland Cheetahs could also be an elaborate hoax or the work of foreign agents posing as domestic dissidents to further undermine the regime.
The Iranian regime said it is now investigating the incident to ascertain the cause. Foreign ministry spokesperson Seyed Abbas Mousavi told reporters Monday: “If a regime or a government is involved in the Natanz incident, Iran will react decisively.”