Whether it was a cyberattack or a deliberately planned explosion that caused a serious power outage at Iran’s underground Natanz uranium enrichment plant on Sunday, it was most likely carried out by Israel. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed Tel Aviv for the sabotage and vowed to “take revenge on the Zionists,” while also promising to replace the damaged centrifuges at the site with even better ones. Iran described the attack as “nuclear terrorism.”
The incident dealt a severe blow to the country’s ability to enrich uranium and could take at least nine months to restore, according to intelligence sources cited by the New York Times on Monday. Israel has apparently targeted Iran’s nuclear program on a number of occasions, the most recent being the bold assassination operation that killed the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last November.
The timing of this latest attack was intriguing. It took place as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin landed in Israel for the first visit by a senior member of the Biden administration. While the declared objective of his trip was to discuss ways to strengthen the strategic relationship between the two countries, regional issues and US arms supplies to Israel, analysts believe Austin wanted to convey a message from the Biden White House to Israeli officials regarding the Iran nuclear agreement, which Tel Aviv vehemently opposes. Indirect talks between Iran and the US, sponsored by the EU, took place last week in Vienna and are expected to resume this week. A senior State Department official was quoted as saying that the talks “met expectations” but did not assuage US doubts about Iran’s willingness to negotiate in good faith over the 2015 nuclear deal.
The attack also took place one day after Iran began using what were described as advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium at the Natanz plant, as it marked its National Nuclear Technology Day. President Hassan Rouhani said that “all our nuclear activities are peaceful and for nonmilitary purposes.”
Despite the strategic ties between Washington and Tel Aviv, Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu has stood firm in its rejection of the 2015 nuclear deal and supported former US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from it. Netanyahu went as far as to snub then-President Barack Obama by accepting an invitation to address the US Congress in March 2015, when he attacked the nuclear deal that the White House so strongly supported.
Speaking to his country’s top military brass on Sunday, Netanyahu bragged that “the fight against Iran and its proxies… is a massive task. The way things are now doesn’t mean they will stay that way later on. It’s very hard to explain what we’ve done here in Israel, moving from total helplessness… to a global power.” Israeli military sources talked about upcoming exercises that would mimic an attack on Iran. But Israel is not the only country in the region that is worried about Iran’s nuclear activities and its regional behavior. Those concerns are shared by a number of other countries.
This is a problem for the Biden administration — and its European allies — as they are eager to bring Iran back to the nuclear deal, but not without forcing Tehran to make concessions. Iran wants the US to lift all economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration before it recommits. The US, as far as we know, is ready to start the partial lifting of sanctions that are directly linked to Iran’s nuclear program. Other sanctions are related to its regional activities, human rights record and ballistic missile program.
The Americans and their European partners want to reach a deal before Iran holds its presidential elections in fewer than 100 days’ time. Perceived to be a pragmatist, Rouhani warned last month that hard-line opponents are obstructing efforts to lift the biting US sanctions. The view from the West is that Rouhani may be replaced by a hard-liner handpicked by Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.
Despite the strategic ties between Washington and Tel Aviv, Israel has stood firm in its rejection of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The Israelis argue that their sabotage efforts are working to delay and hinder Iran’s nuclear program, but they offer no realistic view of what could happen next. Iran and Israel have been engaged in a maritime drone war. In the midst of the Vienna talks last week, Iran accused Israel of attacking an Iranian tanker in the Red Sea. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, has pointed the finger at Tehran for a missile strike that hit an Israeli cargo ship in the Arabian Sea last month. Israel has also been carrying out almost weekly strikes against Iranian military targets in Syria, with Netanyahu vowing to contain the Iranian military presence in that country.
Joe Biden, who served as vice president to Obama, will have a tough time reining in Israel as his team negotiates with Iran. The damage that Israel is doing goes far beyond delaying Iran’s nuclear program. The attacks will force Tehran to take its program further underground and away from any form of international inspection regime. Even as Netanyahu fights his rivals to form a government, he knows that, when it comes to the Iranian threat, all his opponents are in line with him. He also knows that Republicans in the US continue to support Trump’s policy on Iran.
- Osama Al-Sharif