There are conflicting reports about the nature and extent of the damage caused by a Mossad attack on Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz. Some reports spoke of a cyber-attack which sabotaged the electric grid and shut off power to the centrifuges and other equipment. But more likely accounts indicate that an explosive device caused massive physical damage to the plant as well. It’s possible that the explosive device was triggered remotely by a cyber-device. That would combine both explanations.
The Times reports:
Two intelligence officials briefed on the damage said it had been caused by a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified Israeli operation, said that the explosion had dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production.
The NY Times report does not clarify whether the Intelligence officials mentioned above are Israeli or American, but it appears much more likely that these would be Mossad officials since they would know both the target and the level of damage. Ronen Bergman, whose byline appears in this story, specializes in reporting on the Mossad, as I mentioned in an earlier post this week.
Given that the source here is likely the Mossad, it’s important to take these claims with a small grain of salt. Yes, there will be disruption. But the Iranians have proven remarkably adaptable in recovering from previous Israeli attacks. They also have layers of redundancy in all their programs and facilities. Though Natanz may be their main production plant, there may be other subsidiary facilities they could switch to until they repair the damage.
Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus and security mindset tends to over-credit the impact that its operations have on its enemies. Because Israel relies on force rather than diplomacy to pursue its interests, it tends to see these attacks in their most favorable light. Reality has shown that force actually has limited and relatively shot-term impact. Whatever damage it does can be repaired. And it never dissuades the enemy (whether Iran or Hezbollah or Hamas) from pursuit of the approach it has chosen.
This is the second major attack on Natanz by the Mossad in the past year. A similar explosion also caused major damage to the facility. But as I noted above, it was back up and running in a relatively short period of time.
Interestingly, the AP story originally contained the following paragraph, which has been censored or deleted from later versions of this article. It portrays substantial physical damage to the facility:
State television has yet to show images from the facility. However, the facility seemed to be in such disarray that, following the attack, a prominent nuclear spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi walking above ground at the site fell 7 meters (23 feet) through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.
The Daily Mail report confirms the incident though reports the official’s injuries as lighter than the AP version:
In a related incident, AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi had an accident Sunday while inspecting the site when he “fell from a few meters and suffered light fractures on his feet and head”, IRNA reported.
Kamalvandi gave a video interview from his hospital bed Monday to the Tasnim news agency in which he voiced confidence that after the “small explosion… they can quickly repair the damaged areas”.
It is no coincidence that the Israeli attack happened “within hours” of the Iranians proudly announcing they were launching new centrifuges to the production line which could produce far more enriched uranium at a far faster rate.
Add to this attack, last week’s leak by an Israeli Mossad official to the NY Times’ Ronen Bergman that Israel had sabotaged the Iranian spy ship Saviz off the Yemeni coast; earlier attacks on Iranian oil tankers, including one which caused a massive oil spill and the worst environmental disaster in Israel’s history; and the Israeli assassination of the founder of Iran’s nuclear program–and it’s clear that Israel is engaged in a massive, long-term, carefully orchestrated plan to do everything short of war to degrade Iran’s nuclear program.
Some media reports echoing talking points doubtless from Israeli sources claim that the sabotage campaign actually weakens Iran’s position in the JCPOA talks. As if Israel has somehow done the participants a favor in attacking Iran. There isn’t a hope in hell that destroying or weakening Iran’s enrichment program will have any impact on that country’s negotiating position. If anything it will make it more intransigent and less willing to compromise (which is probably the outcome Israel prefers).
Israel’s campaign appears to directly contradict the Biden administration’s declared intent to return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement. This effort has lately been foundering over US intransigence in demanding Iran return to full compliance before the US will do its share and relieve sanctions imposed by Pres. Trump after he withdrew from the deal. This hardline US position seems motivated in part by fear of Republican opposition to a deal that would appear too conciliatory to the Iranians.
However, the danger of such stubbornness is that it gives the Israelis a chance to mount further attacks, which would poison the atmosphere for any peaceful resolution of the entire issue. The more scientists who are murdered, ships sabotaged, and facilities bombed, the more resistant Iran will be to returning to the nuclear agreement. It will say that no matter how much we compromise, no matter what deal results, you can’t control Israel, which will continue attacking us. So unless you can stop Israel, it won’t matter what we do. In that case, we’d rather take our chances and pursue our nuclear plans unhindered by such agreements, since they will hem us in.
Another dire possibility is the Israeli attacks will motivate the Iranians to mount a devastating attack of their own against an Israeli target. An even more likely possibility is that Iran will renounce all constraints on the nuclear program and go all out for production of a nuclear weapon and the ballistic missile system necessary to deliver it. There are, of course, constraints on Iran. It must carefully calibrate its responses in order not to cross red lines with its JCPOA partners. It must retain the support in particular of Russia and China, its current allies. But the worse, and more damaging the Israeli attacks, the more likely to loosen those restraints.
It is also no coincidence that Israel mounted this attack on the very day that defense secretary Lloyd Austin arrived for the first visit of a senior US official since the Biden Inauguration. It was clearly meant as a shot across the US’s bow. Though Austin wasn’t about to be drawn into the fray:
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin studiously avoided any mention of Iran and its nuclear ambitions in his public statements on a two-day visit to Israel, even when his interlocutors highlighted the issue.
Israel engaged in the same provocation during a Biden visit to Israel when he was vice-president, announcing hundreds of new settlement housing units the day he arrived.
This is a clear message of defiance to Biden saying, whatever you want to do regarding Iran has no bearing on us. We will pursue our own efforts and you will not stop us. It would leave the US president with the highly unpalatable option of exerting maximum pressure on the Israelis in order to stop the assaults. This would become a high stakes game in which Biden would have to propose and implement punitive terms on the Israelis, ones that would be ‘meaningful’ (i.e. hurt) to Netanyahu and cause him to take pause. That might mean economic or military sanctions. The withholding of some or all of the yearly $3.8-billion in aid Obama negotiated. No president since the first George Bush has been willing to take such draconian steps. Democratic presidents in particular are constrained by Republican attacks claiming they are either soft on Israel or outright anti-Israel. It becomes unlikely Biden will take things that far, if only because he perceives the Middle East as a much lower priority than Asia and other world affairs.
That, of course, leaves Iran high and dry, and increases the likelihood it will pursue ever more provocative responses to Israeli provocations. The danger in such a process is that Biden’s relatively hands-off approach leaves the two parties to duke it out amongst themselves. Events could spiral out of control, and by the time the US realizes this, it may be too late. In a Middle East with hundreds of Israeli nuclear weapons, billions in advanced weaponry, and generations’-long hatreds between Sunnis and Shiites, the region cannot afford Biden’s version of benign neglect.