Iran’s Atomic Energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, called the power blackout at its underground enrichment center in Natanz on Sunday morning. April 1, an act of “nuclear terrorism” – the sort of language that betrays fury over serious damage. Speaking to state TV, Salehi held back details and named no names, but suspicion automatically fell on Israel, the US or both.
The conviction is growing, DEBKAfile’s analysts note, that whatever Israel may throw at Iran’s nuclear program, sabotage, cyberwar, malware or even assassinations, including the death of its top scientist last year, the Iranians simply patch up the damage and get back on track. Nine months after the Natanz centrifuge production hall was blown up, a larger, newer facility was sunk underground. It was there that, on Saturday, President Hassan Rouhani switched on new, advanced centrifuges for the accelerated enrichment of uranium to grades prohibited under the 2015 accord.
Still, Israel and the United States, together and separately, had good reason to out the electrical grid feeding the operation by what appears to have been a cyberattack. The Biden administration is suffering from Tehran’s foot-dragging and delaying tactics in response to its call for renewed nuclear talks to negotiate an improved version of the 2015 nuclear accord. The Iranians are obviously wasting time to bring their program to break-out level and then confront the world with the fait accompli of a fully-fledged nuclear power.
Disrupting enrichment at Natanz should have told Tehran that Washington would not tolerate this gambit. Israel, for its part, has a direct interest in knocking out the advanced IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges from enriching enough high-grade uranium to fuel a nuclear weapon. But the explosion at Natanz last July had the effect of egging the Iranians on to build a bigger and better enrichment hall underground.
The conviction is growing, DEBKAfile’s analysts note, that whatever Israel may throw at Iran’s nuclear program, sabotage, cyberwar, malware or even assassinations, including the death of its top scientist last year, the Iranians simply patch up the damage and get back on track. Nine months after the Natanz centrifuge production hall was blown up, a larger, newer facility was up and running. It was there that, on Saturday, President Hassan Rouhani switched on new, advanced centrifuges for the accelerated enrichment of uranium to grades prohibited under the 2015 accord. Just as doggedly, Israel has been engaged in a long campaign for nearly a decade to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, while both nations take care to avoid heavy casualties and tipping over into all-out war.
For Israel, Iran is an ever-present enemy.
Greeting visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel views America as an ally against all threats, including Iran’s. “The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel.” Gantz went on to say: “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and of the United States, while preventing a dangerous arms race in our region, and protecting the state of Israel.”
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, speaking at a memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers, said: “Our operations across the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy. They are watching us, observing our capabilities and weighing their steps with caution.” He then said pointedly: “We are on constant guard and our skills are enhanced. At any given moment, we can switch from practice mode to real operations.”
Kochavi’s message to Tehran was that the IDF held a formidable offensive response ready to greet any Iranian attempt at retaliation. The general’s words, and Israel’s conspicuous military strength, may explain why Iran has never meted out any major punishment for those painful, costly and pinpointed assaults on its nuclear facilities, its bases and weapons depots in Syria, last week’s attack on the IRGC’s Saviz spy ship in the Red Sea – or even for the assassination last year on Iranian soil of Mohsin Fakharizadeh, father of Iran’s nuclear program. The Islamic Republic may raise the stakes at some time in the future, but for now, it does indeed “weigh its steps with caution,” preferring to keep its heartland safe by deploying a network of proxies to front its belligerent operations. Will the cyberattack on Natanz finally draw Iran out of its self-protective self-restraint? That remains to be seen.