Airstrike or bombing: What happened at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site?

The July 2 explosion at the Natanz nuclear site in central Iran targeting an advance centrifuge assembly lab has everyone talking. There has been speculation and experts are weighing the possibility of an industrial incident, a cyber-attack, sabotage with explosives and even an airstrike.

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The possibility of an airstrike with manned aircraft, such as F-16s or F-35s, is next to none. Why? Other than the long range and refueling demands, the amount of damage caused is not worth the risk. Such an airstrike would only be allowed if it renders massive damage and a long-term strategic setback.

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Why? Because such an operation cannot be repeated and bears the risks of pilots being shot down and arrested. Therefore, taking such a risk would not be logical for striking just one building of a single nuclear site, as important as it may be.

If the United States and/or Israel decided to launch manned aircraft airstrikes targeting Iran’s nuclear program, they would deliver a wide-range blow aimed at forcing Iran to halt its ambitions in its entirety, and thus bend the knee before their demands. And rest assured Iran would feel the need to respond through conventional and non-conventional means.

While the Iranian regime is denying any airstrikes, the possibility of using drones for such a surgical attack is not unlikely. On August 25, 2014, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency, affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force, reported that the IRGC shot down an Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 spy drone near Natanz.

To save face regarding such a brazen infiltration into Iranian airspace, state media focused on beating their chests about the regime’s “air defense capabilities.” No one ever thought to answer why was Israel able to penetrate so far into Iran’s airspace? And if so, couldn’t that or a larger, more advanced drone launch missile(s) targeting sensitive sites deep inside Iran?

In contrast to the recent explosion at a military complex in Khojir, east of Tehran, a normal industrial incident in Natanz is also unlikely. Due to various reasons, including massive investing and constant advice provided by experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Natanz site is most likely one of Iran’s most advanced industrial complexes when it comes to health, safety and environmental considerations.

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The destroyed building that exploded was used for the mechanic assembly of centrifuges, meaning there were no special explosive material inside. Furthermore, a night shift is unlikely in such a building. Images indicate a pressure wave (explosion) inside the building.

The possibility of sabotage through an unauthorized entrance into the site (special forces) is near to none. The possibility of people with access inside to secretly transfer explosives into the site is doubtable due to the security measures taken at the site that are stronger than airports these days. It appears that everyone is tested for explosives before entrance.

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Back in November 2019 Iran alleged that the U.N. inspector it blocked from entering a nuclear site tested positive for suspected traces of explosive nitrates, according to the Associated Press.

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Moreover, if this explosion was deliberate, considering its small proportions, it appears the attackers sought a specific objective and to inflict a psychological blow, as if such measures can be repeated in the future.

However, since preventing such a future attack through any form of sabotage would be quite easy with further inspections and security measures, the sought psychological impact cannot be realized through sabotage.

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The possibility of a cyberattack is even less than sabotage considering the abovementioned reasoning (lack of explosive material) and escalated security measures following the Stuxnet attack.

A recent New York Times piece citing an IRGC member and a Middle East intelligence official is quite suspicious due to its very timely nature and mysterious sources.

Keep in mind:

a. It is written by Farnaz Fassihi, who has a long report card of being described as an Iran apologist, praising both Zarif & Qasim Soliemani in previous NYT pieces.

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b. The possibility of an advanced air/cruise missile strike targeting Natanz would deliver a major and humiliating setback to the regime after all its propaganda about purchasing the S300 air defense system from Russia and claiming to have produced indigenous missile defense system “even more advanced than the S300”!

Another example of an Iran apologist rushing to Tehran’s rescue is Babak Taghvaee who in a July 6 Farsi article published in the Independent claims the attack on Natanz could be anything but an airstrike. Like Fassihi, Taghvaee says, “It appears a bombing inside this building rendered significant damage and a fire, not an air strike.”

Again, the concern is to divert any and all attention from the airstrike scenario, knowing how humiliating this would be for the regime in Iran. For those unfamiliar with Taghvaee, he has long been under heavy criticism from Iranians living abroad for justifying and whitewashing the regime’ crimes, such as his claims about technical errors leading to the IRGC shooting down the Ukrainian airliner PS752 back in early January.

And a lesser discussed aspect of Natanz is the material damage the mullahs’ regime has inflicted on the Iranian people with this 300-hectare complex in the past 18 years.
Reminder: Iran has spent at least $800 billion dollars in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Initial higher resolution satellite images of the centrifuge assembly building in Natanz show a major explosion. Some believe this raises the possibility of an “air projectile impact” scenario.

Yellow dot shows the possible point of impact and the arrow indicates the general direction of the projectile.

Before we examine the destruction caused in the Natanz site, let us evaluate similar situations seen in the aftermaths of airstrikes in Syria.

This 48m x 26m building was destroyed in Homs, central Syria. It’s around two thirds of the 45m x 75m building in Natanz. A portion of the Homs building remained intact after the strike.

This is another target near the Damascus Int’l Airport around half of the Natanz building. One fifth of this Damascus building remained intact after the strike. Pay close attention to how the building’s remnants and shrapnel are spread (seen in green arrows).

In this attack two flat-bed trucks next to the building were apparently the target of an airstrike. However, the attack inflicted damage to parts of the building.

Now let us return to Natanz:

The damage is Category B (50% to 75% of external brickwork destroyed, remaining walls have gaping cracks that are unrepairable) inflicted in the yellow circle area of 20m radius. This amount of damage needs around 200 to 300 kgs of TNT-equivalent explosives (with initial velocity).

Moreover, the building remnants spreading in east to west direction to a distance of more than 50m (light yellow lines) support the possibility of a foreign projectile impact from the general east direction.

A cruise missile with a medium-size warhead cannot create a crater as it explodes aboveground to inflict maximum damage on the target, not the ground.

Looking at these filtered images one realizes that a corner of the building is completely gone. There is a low number of small remnants and they are blown far away. A wall of about 5m height is completely gone. We don’t even see any columns.

Iranian officials should know by now what type of projectile was used (possibility a cruise missile). Air-launched weapons, be it cruise missiles or glide bombs (most likely not used in this attack), leave remnants that can be quickly analyzed at the site.

Reminder:

Iranian officials claim they are informed of the source of this attack but refrain from public announcements due to security considerations (most likely due to the psychological impact). Determining an airstrike is far easier than sabotage or cyber-attacks.

If “advanced equipment and precision measurement devices” have been damaged in this attack, it will set back Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons for many weeks and even months. Some are saying a year. Considering IAEA inspections, we may see more bits of intelligence leaking in the future.

Better images show a possible second point of impact on the asphalt road outside the Natanz building. Considering the destruction and shrapnel both inside and outside the building, two projectiles could have been used in this attack.

Remarks made by Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, about the possibility of reconstructing the building at the same site, or another location “with air defense considerations” further the possibility of an airstrike in this attack.

“Air defense considerations” is the key to the Natanz riddle here. It is worth noting that building another site in another location other than Natanz is a violation of the 2015 nuclear deal that can result in a strong international backlash even from Russia and China.

And its quite interesting that Reuters, after four days, continues to deliberately provide false and face-saving reporting for Iran’s regime. Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised considering the piece was written by Parisa Hafezi, a known Iran apologist at Reuters.

Reminder:

-2007 doc, mentioning Parisa Hafezi, shows how the Reuters team needs approval from #Iran’s Intelligence Ministry to visit the city of Qom.

-All foreign media reports in Iran must abide by Intel Ministry guidelines.

-Shame on Reuters for falling to such lows.

When sabotage bombing doesn’t convince, Iran’s state media are even going the distance in claiming the strike targeting Natanz was a “deliberate attack” to thus claim “an airstrike is nearly impossible.”

Conclusion, you ask?

For me, this is looking more and more like a precision and surgical airstrike carried out by Israel with U.S. support and maybe even U.S. allies in the region. Remember that Iran first claimed the building was nothing but a shed and now we know it was probably the regime’s most advanced centrifuge assembly lab.

Now that more signs are indicating a foreign attack, Tehran needs to save face. In my opinion, that is why an Iran apologist such as Farnaz Fassihi published a New York Times piece claiming the explosion was caused by a sabotage bombing.

This video from July 5, four days after the attack, shows Iran moving air defense missile batteries to the Natanz nuclear site. If it was a sabotage bombing, why move such strategic units to Natanz?

Finally, as I explained earlier, Iran acknowledging a foreign airstrike targeting its most advanced nuclear site in the heart of the country would deliver a humiliating blow and weaken the regime at a time when domestic crises are already overflowing.

Anyhow, time will tell.

Iran honestly abiding by nuclear deal or terrified of changing times?

Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently issued his latest report to the agency’s Board of Governors. At a first glance the text leaves you thinking Iran is honoring the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA.

However, considering the rapid pace of international developments, and US President Donald Trump’s harsh remarks against the nuclear deal, we are seeing Iran going the limits to maintain the JCPOA intact. This is a staunchly different approach from the Obama era.

The latest IAEA report contains very important technical aspects, showing how weak Iran has become. Despite all the threats of abandoning the JCPOA ship altogether, Iran’s recent measures proves it needs the JCPOA more than any other party.

By the statistics

On November 8th, 2016 the IAEA verified Iran’s heavy water reserves reached 130.1 metric tons. Iran also informed the IAEA about sending 11 metric tons of heavy water outside of its borders on November 6th and 19th, also verified by the IAEA.

After this transfer Iran has not dared to exceed the 130 metric ton limit, and on February 14th the IAEA verified Iran’s reserves have decreased to 124.2 metric tons, meaning even 6 metric tons less than the JCPOA specified amount.

During the Obama administration Iran had twice exceeded the 130 metric ton limit, and yet rushed to send the excess amount to Oman prior to Donald Trump taking the helm at the White House.

Natanz

Under the JCPOA Iran is permitted to maintain more than 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges in 30 cascades in the Natanz enrichment site. Again, terrified of the incoming Trump administration, reports indicate Iran has significantly lowered the number of such centrifuges.

Iran is continuing to enrich UF6 uranium at Natanz, yet not daring to enrich any uranium above the 3.67 percent standard set for nuclear fuel production. Iran has also not exceeded the 300-kilogram amount of 3.67 percent uranium 235, equal to 202.8 kilograms of uranium.

By February 18th Iran had stored 101.7 kilograms of 3.67 percent uranium, showing the regime has not only abided, but even halved their stocks. This is another sign of Iran’s concerns of the change in guards in Washington.

Ferdow

The controversial Ferdow uranium enrichment, with a capacity of 3,000 centrifuges, currently has 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges, where 1,042 are placed in six cascades, and two such centrifuges are set aside for research purposes.

During the past three months (especially following the November 8th US elections) Iran has suspended all of Ferdow’s uranium enrichment and R & D activities.

Surveillance

All stocked centrifuges, along with their components, are under constant IAEA surveillance. The IAEA enjoys orderly access to related facilities in Natanz, including daily inspections based on IAEA inspectors’ requests.

Iran continues to allow the IAEA use electronic surveillance devices and online seals on its uranium enrichment facilities to provide continuous monitoring. Iran has also agreed to provide for the presence of a larger number IAEA monitors.

Iran has agreed to abide by the Additional Protocol, once considered a red line for the regime, allowing the IAEA monitor a large number of sites and other facilities affiliated to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s enriched uranium in Oman

Another sign of Iran giving in to major setbacks is the regime’s agreement to stock their enriched uranium in Oman, and seek its sale to foreign buyers from there. This also includes stocks of excessive heavy water. And yet, Iran is also concerned about the fate of its money in Oman banks, as expressed by a number of parliament members.

The irony

In the meantime, one cannot say for certain that the mullahs have actually relented their nuclear weapons drive. It is in the mullahs’ nature to continue their pursuit for terrorism, nuclear weapons and domestic crackdown. These are the Iranian regime’s three main pillars.

It is common knowledge that the mullahs enjoy no social base, and this is seen in remarks made by Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency chief saying in most of his interviews how Tehran intends to relaunch the nuclear program once the JCPOA time limit ends.

Despite all this, the mullahs very well understand the language of force. Iran only succumbed to the nuclear talks once international sanctions began crippling their economy.

During the Obama years Iran understood very well his administration would take no serious actions against their aggressive nature, as seen in the West’s relative silence in the face of more than a dozen missile test launches.

To this end, Iran’s recent compliance by JCPOA articles should only be perceived as a result of its deep fear in the new US administration’s possible policies.

Investments

After Obama left office foreign investment in Iran has also witnessed a nosedive, adding to the mullahs’ growing concerns. Tehran curbed a portion of its nuclear program, yet receiving nothing in return and continuously being described as the main state supporter of terrorism, instability and insecurity.

Iran’s unfrozen money has been transferred to Oman, and yet the government says it cannot release the assets to Tehran. Iran has at least $18 billion blocked in China, with no means to gain access to.

British Petroleum also had double thoughts following Trump’s entrance into the White House. This major international oil company has currently taken a major step back from participating in Iran’s oil projects.

Total in France, seeking to develop the major gas fields south of Iran, has also taken similar measures, suspending its activities until the summer of this year to allow Trump to clarify his JCPOA policy.

Foreign banks and companies

Why are French companies unable to invest in Iran? This country’s largest banks are holding back on any cooperation with Tehran, blocking any major investment by large French companies in this country. In addition to Total, Renault, AirBus and others are unable to invest in Iran without the support of major French banks such as Societe Generale.

These banks, however, are very concerned of unilateral punishing measures by the US against foreign entities investing in Iran. For example, the BNP Paribas was slapped with an $8.9 billion fine by Washington for bypassing US sanctions against Iran.

Airline restrictions

Japan’s Mitsubishi ended its negotiations to sell planes to Iran, citing concerns of the new US administration’s possible future sanctions and policies.

Despite Tehran seeking to expand its airlines and reach abroad following the nuclear deal, New Delhi delivered yet another blow by suspending its flights to Iran.

“Air India Express, the low-cost unit of the South Asian nation’s flag carrier, has put on hold a plan to fly to Tehran amid renewed tensions between the US and Iran after President Donald Trump imposed fresh sanctions on the Persian Gulf country,” according to a Bloomberg report.

Money laundry warnings

The Financial Action Task Force, the international body assigned to fight back against money laundering, issued a stark warning to Tehran to live up to its obligations or else face serious actions.

The FATF recently issued a strong reminder saying “in June 2016, the FATF suspended counter-measures for twelve months in order to monitor Iran’s progress in implementing the Action Plan. If the FATF determines that Iran has not demonstrated sufficient progress in implementing the Action Plan at the end of that period, FATF’s call for counter-measures will be re-imposed.”

Conclusion

More than a year after the JCPOA implementation, and with Washington adopting a completely new mentality and overhauling any pro-appeasement policies vis-à-vis Iran, the mullahs in Tehran have realized the global balance of power has shifted completely against their interests.

To this end, their recent measures to curtail their nuclear stocks should not be considered a coming to mind by Tehran. Not at all. The mullahs understand the language of force, just as President Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981 the fledgling mullahs’ regime rushed to release all American hostages after a 444 ordeal.

Now, Tehran is once again comprehending a significant shift in international politics, and it is taking measures accordingly to limit all possible damages. And rest assured they will jump to the occasion if they sense any weakness or hesitation.

As a result, Iran must be held at the ropes and the next necessary step in this regard is the long overdue designation of its Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. This will begin to limit its ability to wreak havoc across the Middle East and limit its human rights atrocities.

This is in the interest of all nations.

Originally posted in Al Arabiya English