The fire came in the middle of a series of unexplained incidents at other facilities. A huge blast hit near the town of Parchin and its military complex last month. Another explosion hit the Zargan power plant in Ahvaz over the weekend and hours later, a chlorine gas leak made dozens ill in southeast Iran. There is such a thing as coincidence, and sanctions mean maintenance issues can be more frequent. But the pattern just added to the speculation around Natanz.
Iran’s on-the-record response — which admitted nothing bar claiming to know the “main cause” — perhaps was the most telling, that it would detail the cause when it suited. You might assess that a government dealing with economic difficulties, a persistent pandemic and crippling sanctions, would have preferred to sweep this incident under the carpet, were it just incompetence or an accident. Instead, it has chosen to amplify and prolong the suspicions.
Iran was able to diffuse that increase in tension — which came after an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil fields that Tehran was accused of but denied — by letting slide this possible retaliatory move by opponents in the region.
Is Iran doing the same here, and obfuscating whom it intends to blame so it can get a handle on coronavirus first? Is it unsure what happened? Or simply giving out the message it knows who is to blame and how they did it, to stop them from trying a repeat attack?
Accept, for a speculative moment, the possibility this was an Israeli act of sabotage successfully executed. Why now? Why there? It would likely have been a moment of opportunity seized — of weak defenses, or a lucky mole — something Israel would probably have done, regardless of the timing.
“The risk is that these sorts of incidents become the new, dangerous norm,” said Naysan Rafati, a senior Iran analyst at the Crisis Group. “It seems reasonable to assume that whoever was responsible for the incident wanted to, at minimum, delay Tehran and, at best, dissuade it, but the Iranians say they’ll simply rebuild.”
The blast also came at a moment of increased scrutiny of Iran’s renewed enrichment efforts. The JCPOA meant enrichment had to be kept to 3.67% — a level purely useful for research. Iran has said that repeated US sanctions mean its obligations under the deal are reduced, and that it would start enriching uranium to 5%, or perhaps more. The threshold at which material for a weapon becomes within reach is after 20%.
So alarm bells have begun to ring. UN inspectors, the IAEA, have added to the concerns, by accusing Iran of not allowing complete access to two of its nuclear sites and trebling its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
The short-lived yet damaging fire at Natanz takes us no closer to answering the question of whether Iran wants a bomb. But it does renew focus on Iran’s nuclear activity, both inside and outside the country. Either way, whatever lit the blaze in that shed, it also metaphorically switched a light on above all of Iran’s other nuclear plants.