By Andrea Stricker
July 15, 2020
A powerful explosion destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant in Iran earlier this month, an event which anonymous sources told U.S. journalists was the result of Israeli sabotage. An attack by Jerusalem on one of Tehran’s key nuclear assets could foreshadow a covert action campaign designed to set back Iran’s nuclear program. The timing for such a campaign is opportune, since Tehran may hesitate to respond with force, lest it provoke the final collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The blast on July 1 destroyed the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC), located within the Natanz nuclear complex. The ICAC produces advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium at much faster rates than Iran’s older centrifuge design models.
A 2018 video by Iranian state media shows that IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges were assembled at the plant before delivery to the enrichment facility at Natanz. Iran has deployed each of these models in increasing numbers, in contravention of limits established by the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Tehran likely planned to increase its uranium enrichment capacity by deploying fewer but faster centrifuges of the kind being assembled at the ICAC, rather than adding additional units of its antiquated IR-1 centrifuges. Thus, the explosion may have hit a key bottleneck in Iran’s scale-up effort.
Two unnamed intelligence officials told The New York Times that the ICAC blast may have set back Iran’s advanced centrifuge program by up to two years. The Institute for Science and International Security estimated the event was “a major setback to Iran’s ability to deploy advanced centrifuges on a mass scale for years to come.” An Iranian nuclear official admitted that the disabling of the ICAC could hinder the program for at least several months.
The ICAC incident took place amid a series of other mysterious fires and explosions throughout Iran. Two of the affected sites included a missile production facility in Khojir and another facility that may also have a military purpose. The explosions at the three strategic facilities have occurred on consecutive Thursdays or Fridays.
The blasts may have been the result of explosive devices planted at the sites, potentially involving the ignition of gas. Anonymous officials interviewed by U.S. media have not ruled out a cyber-related trigger. Iran’s Foreign Ministry has thus far declined to publicly characterize the causes of the explosions or any connection between them.
THE BEGIN DOCTRINE
Israel has a long history of employing covert military action against the nuclear assets of hostile regional powers. After Israeli airstrikes destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced a policy of using force to prevent enemies from developing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction; this became known as the “Begin Doctrine.” The 1981 strike successfully hindered an early incarnation of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. In 2007, Israel’s “Operation Orchard” again used aerial bombardment to obliterate a nuclear reactor in Syria, halting Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear weapons effort.
In 2009 and 2010, Israel used cyber sabotage to infiltrate computer systems at Iran’s Natanz fuel enrichment plant. The resulting malware infections destroyed some 1,000 Iranian IR-1 centrifuges, or about one-tenth of the number then deployed at the site. However, Tehran was able to quickly overcome the setback. Between 2007 and 2012, Israel may have assassinated several key Iranian nuclear scientists who were involved in sensitive atomic work.
In most cases, Israel has not claimed responsibility for its actions, even if others presumed Jerusalem to be behind them. By comparison, in 2018, several months after Mossad agents stole a large archive of nuclear weapons files from vaults at a Tehran warehouse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly claimed responsibility. Jerusalem has since publicly revealed new information about Iran’s nuclear program, some of which it derived from the Tehran archive.
AN OPPORTUNE MOMENT
If Israel is responsible for the ICAC blast, the timing of its action may amplify its impact while limiting the odds of Iranian retaliation. While Tehran has openly violated the JCPOA and refused access to UN inspectors, its enrichment capacity and stockpile of enriched uranium have not yet rebounded to pre-JCPOA limits.
The regime may also avoid reprisals for the moment, since provocative actions may persuade the European parties to the JCPOA to “snap back” UN sanctions lifted by the agreement. However, the Trump administration may trigger a snapback of UN sanctions before October, when an associated conventional arms embargo on Iran is set to expire. If the JCPOA collapsed following a snapback, the Iranian regime may be less inclined to restrain its response to sabotage. Thus, the window to damage Tehran’s nuclear assets without provoking a violent response may be closing.
The upcoming U.S. presidential election may also close a window of opportunity for Jerusalem. A Biden administration may be less tolerant of sabotage as it seeks to renew nuclear talks with Tehran with an eye toward reviving the JCPOA.
While the regime in Iran may avoid military retaliation for the moment, pressure to respond to the Natanz blast is likely to result in an array of efforts to frustrate international nuclear inspectors. To start, Iran will almost certainly move underground a reconstructed centrifuge assembly facility, where it will be less vulnerable to attack. Tehran could also reduce adherence to its nuclear safeguards agreements, creating more opacity around its nuclear activities. In addition, Iran will be less inclined to comply with a UN nuclear watchdog investigation into the regime’s alleged undeclared nuclear material and activities.
Israel understands that the Islamic Republic will resist the conclusion of an agreement that effectively constrains its nuclear ambitions, unless severe sanctions leave Tehran no other option. Yet Jerusalem may figure that whether or not the mullahs eventually negotiate, they should have fewer nuclear assets to bargain with.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies