Israel likely behind mysterious explosions in Iran, experts say

For weeks, Iran has faced a deadly wave of explosions and fires at sensitive military and civilian sites, including one incident that caused immense damage to an important nuclear facility. No one officially knows why it’s happening or who is responsible — but many believe Israel, with the Trump administration’s tacit or even direct support, is behind it all.

On June 26, a massive explosion rocked the Khojir missile-production complex, a location considered vital to Iran’s missile capabilities. Four days later, another blast — this time at a medical clinic north of the capital, Tehran — killed 19 people.

On July 2, an explosion and fire occurred at the underground Natanz nuclear facility, a key component to the country’s uranium-enrichment efforts. What actually transpired is unclear, but a Middle Eastern official — believed to be the head of Israeli intelligence, Yossi Cohen — told the New York Times last week that Israel had detonated a bomb. Analysts differ on the extent of the damage, but assessments say centrifuge production may have been delayed a few months or even a few years as a result of the explosion and fire.

And this week, fires broke out in an aluminum plant in Lamerd and a seaport in Bushehr, engulfing at least seven wooden ships in the process.

It’s possible all of this is a coincidence. With a reeling economy and a devastating coronavirus outbreak, perhaps the Islamic Republic has merely struggled to maintain sensitive facilities that require constant upkeep. Accidents do happen.

But current and former US and Israeli officials as well as experts I spoke to are pretty certain Israel is responsible for the incidents at the military and nuclear sites (but not the clinic or the port or plant), with or without Washington’s explicit approval.

“There is a pattern of escalation and a context that would suggest a motive on the Israeli side to target the Iranians,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation.

Their reasoning is straightforward: Since President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has inched closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, though the country fiercely denies it is seeking one. Now that Iran is in a weakened position due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic, Israel and the US can target the country’s nuclear and military programs without fear of a massive retaliation.

Such a move would send an unmistakable signal to Tehran. “The message is: ‘You can’t control your country. We can hit you whenever we want, wherever we want,’” said Eric Brewer, who worked on Iran issues as a member of Trump’s National Security Council.

The direct consequences of that signal, though, are unclear. Some suspect Tehran may activate its proxies in Iraq to attack Americans or launch a cyberattack against Israel. It’s also possible Iran will look the other way, as the lack of a known attacker both leaves the regime devoid of a clear target and provides it the political space not to retaliate.

But no one believes these moves will actually convince Iran to back down and suspend all nuclear activity. If anything, the country might start sprinting toward the bomb.

“Covert operations will only undermine long-term nonproliferation efforts,” Mahsa Rouhi, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote Wednesday in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Hardline voices in Tehran will become more motivated to rapidly advance Iran’s nuclear program.”

Which means if Israel (maybe with the US) truly is behind these events in Iran, it’s taking quite the gamble.

Why it’s possible Israel was behind several of the recent explosions in Iran

Israel has long targeted nuclear programs in the Middle East in secret, open, and openly secret ways.

In 1981, Israeli jets bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. And in 2007, it struck a reactor in Syria that could have produced nuclear fuel. But Israel has saved its most audacious counter-nuclear efforts for Iran.

In the early 2000s, Israeli spy chiefs hatched a plan to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, a campaign Jerusalem has never formally acknowledged. In 2012, a top official at Natanz — Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan — was killed in a mysterious explosion. His death followed two other suspected killings over the previous two years.

But that wasn’t all: In 2009, Israel joined the US in using a cyber weapon, known as Stuxnet, to destroy about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 centrifuges.

Why would Israel resort to such bold methods? Simply put, officials in Jerusalem worry Iran could more credibly threaten Israel’s existence if it had a nuclear weapon. There’s real justification for that concern: Just last year, for example, a top Iranian general told local reporters, “Our strategy is to erase Israel from the global political map.”

When it became clear two of the recent explosions in Iran happened at a missile site (Khojir) and a key uranium enrichment facility (Natanz), all eyes turned to Israel as the likely culprit.

“Israel as well as the US have a clear interest in stopping, or at least disrupting, Iran’s weapons production capability, and in particular nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles,” retired Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Raphael Ofek, who served in Israeli military intelligence and in the prime minister’s office, told me.

The damage at Khojir doesn’t seem that extensive, but Natanz took quite a blow.

Nuclear experts at the Institute for Science and International Security on July 8 assessed that the facility had sustained “significant, extensive, and likely irreparable, damage to its main assembly hall section” which “was critical to the mass production of advanced centrifuges.” (Research and development of those centrifuges was permitted under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, experts told me.)

“The building’s replacement would be expected to take at least a year, if not longer,” the nuclear analysts concluded.

And per Ofek, the explosion “won’t dramatically disrupt Iran’s advanced centrifuges program,” but “it may delay the deployment of the latest models of these machines for a year or two.”

Such assessments are important, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told me. Israeli officials believe that if those advanced centrifuges were ever installed and operated at full capacity, it “might allow Iran to break out not with just one bomb, but with an arsenal” of nuclear weapons, he said. Delaying that possibility, then, is certainly a clear and vital Israeli goal.

It’s therefore plausible that Israel was involved in the explosions at the missile and nuclear facilities — though there is no official confirmation that’s the case — and that the US may have given some kind of thumbs-up to such efforts. Tehran, importantly, surely suspects Jerusalem.

“Regardless of whether these are part of a Western sabotage effort … Iran is going to believe that they are,” Brewer, who now works on nuclear issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “Given that these are hitting all across Iran at military and civilian locations, that is going to cause Iran’s threat perceptions to spike.”

But those perceptions depend greatly on the kind of campaign Iran thinks Israel might be waging.

“War between the wars”

It’s worth keeping in mind that Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war for decades, yet no major fight has erupted in years.

In 2006, Israel and Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, battled in a month-long war during which the militant group fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel and Israeli forces fired around 7,000 bombs and missiles into Lebanon.

About 160 Israeli troops and civilians died, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and about 1,100 Lebanese — most of them civilians — perished, per Human Rights Watch, a US-headquartered advocacy organization. HRW also reports about 4,400 Lebanese were injured, and around 1 million people were displaced.

Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah watch a video screening of a speech by the group’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, to mark the 11th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war with Israel, in the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon on August 13, 2017.
Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images

After that battle, Israel became more wary of Iran placing weaponry near its territory. It’s why Israeli warplanes have consistently bombed locations in Syria in recent years, for example, both to destroy weapons shipments and deter further movement of Iranian proxies and officials there.

Israeli officials see the persistent thwarting of Iranian intentions, especially after the 2006 conflict, as the “war between the wars.”

As Shapiro, the former American ambassador to Israel, explained it to me, the concept “reflects the Israeli philosophical approach to buy time and maybe indefinitely push off future wars — and if they occur, to make them as short as possible.” Following this strategy allows Israel to increase its own capabilities, gather intelligence, and gain a greater military advantage against Iran over time.

Degrading Iran’s nuclear and missile program via covert means fits within this framework. Jerusalem is able to keep Tehran from gaining power at minimal expense and without much public fuss, thereby lowering Iran’s confidence it could defeat Israel in a war, should one break out.

That plan seems to be working for the moment. “At end of the war in 2006, if you had told most Israeli officials that there wouldn’t be another war on that border [with Lebanon] after 14 years, they wouldn’t have believed you,” Shapiro said.

The question now is if Iran views the possible Israeli actions through that lens, or as something more sinister.

Iran likely won’t respond forcefully — for now

Since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal two years ago, the US and Iran have been engaged in tit-for-tat escalations.

They’re based on a fundamental disagreement: Washington and Jerusalem want Tehran to give up its nuclear program entirely, as well as to curb its other activities such as missile development and support for violent groups in the region; Iran sees those activities as critical to its survival and as an important pillar of its power and reach, however, and wants sanctions lifted without having to give up those activities.

That disagreement has manifested violently. Iran and its proxies bombed oil tankers and Saudi oil fields, and downed an unmanned American surveillance drone and killed US troops stationed in Iraq — all while it loosened restrictions on its nuclear development.

The US responded by killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary forces, in January. Undeterred, Iran continued its offensive actions, using a cyberweapon to attack Israel’s water supply in May, a strike that potentially could have sickened hundreds of people.

Officials in Iran might therefore see the Khojir and Natanz explosions as part of that fight, thereby compelling them to respond in a bigger way in the tit-for-tat. However, most experts believe Iran will see the incidents in the context of its long-running nuclear feud with Israel.

If that’s the case, it would be good news. What Israel may have done “is a slight escalation, but it’s not really that surprising and not really uncharacteristic of what you’ve seen in the recent history,” Ilan Goldenberg, the Defense Department’s Iran team chief from 2009 to 2012, told me. “All these activities are being done in a way that makes it hard for Iran to retaliate, and gives them space to not retaliate.”

Indeed, the Iranian regime is faltering under sustained economic pressure from the United States, one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, and political protests. It may not have the time or desire to engage in a massive fight with Israel right now.

Between the deniability of Israel and America’s involvement, and the fact that the possible attacks fit into a longstanding pattern, Tehran may not feel compelled to respond immediately and in a dramatically forceful way.

That’s not to say Iran will stand by idly forever. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi vowed this week that “if a regime or a government is involved in the Natanz incident, Iran will react decisively.”

And if Israel and the US continue to hit Iran while it’s down, it may have no choice but to get back up, including potentially launching more cyberattacks or even pushing to develop a nuclear weapon before Israel can do anything about it. Any of those moves would be very provocative — and perhaps make an already dangerous situation much worse.

“The Iranians don’t want this to spiral,” the RAND Corporation’s Kaye told me, “but the longer this persists, the harder it will be for Iran to pretend this isn’t happening.”

“It’s a humiliation at a certain point,” she said.

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