ON APRIL 10TH Iran had two occasions for cheer. One was the resumption of talks, earlier in the week, in Vienna to revive the multinational nuclear deal that Donald Trump, then America’s president, abandoned in 2018. The other was the celebration of National Nuclear Technology Day, which featured performers dressed as nuclear scientists, huddled around centrifuges at Natanz, a facility in Isfahan province, singing paeans to Iran’s scientific prowess. Iranian officials announced they had finally rebuilt part of the facility struck by a mysterious explosion last year.
Then a day later, Natanz went boom again.
A “terrorist act” caused a power failure at the site on April 11th, according to Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic-energy commission (pictured, right, with President Hassan Rouhani). There was a “small explosion”, said the commission’s spokesman. Other reports suggest that the explosion was actually rather large, destroying the power source for the centrifuges, machines which spin uranium to extract fissile isotopes suitable for use in reactors or, if concentrated enough, in bombs. Iranian officials blamed Israel. In contrast with previous incidents, Israeli intelligence officials quickly acknowledged to reporters that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, was indeed involved.
It is not yet clear whether the incident was a cyber-attack, like the American-Israeli Stuxnet worm which ravaged the same centrifuges a decade ago, or a physical act of sabotage involving explosives placed by operatives on the ground. Because Iranian facilities are thought to be “air-gapped”, or disconnected from the wider internet, even a cyber-attack would probably have required agents to gain access to the site. Iran’s intelligence ministry claims to have identified, but not yet arrested, an individual involved, according to Abas Aslani, an Iranian journalist and analyst.
What is clear is that Mossad has shown astonishing freedom of manoeuvre on Iranian soil. In 2018 it pulled off an audacious heist from a warehouse in Tehran of thousands of documents (half a ton of material) related to Iran’s nuclear programme. Last year it was blamed for a series of attacks and explosions on missile and nuclear sites, including Natanz, and two high-profile assassinations in or around Tehran: that of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, an Al-Qaeda operative, in August; and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist, in November.
Beyond Iran, Israel has intensified air strikes against Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria and, more recently, Iraq. Israeli forces have also attacked Iranian ships to disrupt Iranian oil exports and arms shipments. Israel is increasingly open about what it calls this “campaign between the wars”: after an attack on an Iranian vessel stationed in the Red Sea on April 6th reporters were invited to film training at the base of the Israeli naval commando unit thought to be behind the operation.
Israel would have ample motivation for striking Natanz again. On April 10th Iran had begun testing IR-9 centrifuges, 50 times faster than the ageing IR-1s that make up most of the capacity at Natanz. Since January, Iran has also acquired 55kg of uranium enriched to 20% purity, nine-tenths of the way to weapons-grade. The combination of more centrifuges, faster ones and a larger stockpile of uranium, some of it enriched to 20%, is gradually shrinking the time that it would take Iran to produce a bomb’s worth of highly-enriched uranium, were it to seek to do so. The Iranian regime hopes to use these advances as leverage to force America to re-enter the nuclear deal and lift sanctions, which have contributed to soaring inflation in Iran.
President Joe Biden has said that he wants to do so, but in recent months America and Iran have each demanded that the other take the first step. The talks in Vienna suggested that this impasse was being broken. What is not clear is whether Israel’s aim is to goad Iran into more nuclear activity in order to provoke Mr Biden to walk away, or the opposite: to slow down Iranian enrichment, thus easing pressure on Mr Biden to re-enter the deal. Notably, the attack on Natanz occurred as Lloyd Austin, America’s secretary of defence, was paying the first visit to Israel by a senior Biden administration official. Neither he nor any other American official publicly acknowledged or condemned the attack. A State Department spokesman declined to comment when asked about it.
The more cynical view is that Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, may have been guided more by political convenience than strategic necessity. Three weeks after Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years, Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery and fraud, still lacks a majority to form a new government. With coalition-building talks bogged down and the opposition anxious to unseat him, he is appealing to potential allies.
Amiram Levin, a former deputy chief of Mossad and, 53 years ago, Mr Netanyahu’s senior officer in the armed forces, says the prime minister, “under pressure”, was dragging Israel into “excessive activity against Iran”. Yossi Cohen, the chief of Mossad, is seen as loyal to Mr Netanyahu for now, but also has political ambitions of his own and, unlike his predecessors, is not above briefing journalists on his organisation’s operations.
For over a year Mr Cohen and Mossad have been working on the assumption that Iran’s leaders are eager for relief from American sanctions and will therefore avoid any major escalation. Iran itself has threatened “revenge in appropriate time”, but that vague formulation has in the past often provided cover for relatively muted responses.
For now Iranian officials have sought to brush off the attack. Mr Salehi of the atomic-energy commission said that Natanz’s back-up power system had been activated on April 12th and that enrichment “is moving forward vigorously”. Yet Muhammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, seemed to acknowledge that the facility had indeed been damaged. He vowed that “Natanz will be made stronger than before with the use of more advanced machines” to “strengthen our position in the negotiations”.
At the same time, Iran’s establishment is mired in infighting. On March 21st state television began airing the second season of “Gando”, a spy thriller believed to have been produced with the help of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In the show imaginary diplomats who bear a strong resemblance to Mr Zarif and his team are accused of espionage. “Many Iranians are probably wondering what the country’s security services are up to,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, an expert on Iran and editor of Amwaj.media, a website that monitors the Middle East. “While Israel blows things up, the IRGC is commissioning fictitious spy thrillers targeting Iran’s own government amid sanctions and a deadly pandemic.”