DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground atomic facility at Natanz as an act of “nuclear terrorism”, escalating regional tensions.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, refrained from directly blaming anyone for the incident. Details were spared on what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which was initially described as a power outage caused by the electrical grid feeding the site.
Numerous Israeli media have offered the same assessment that a cyberattack darkened Natanz and damaged a facility that houses sensitive centrifuges. Although the reports offered no source for the assessment, the Israeli media maintains close relations with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.
If Israel caused the blackout, it further escalates tensions between the two nations, already embroiled in a shadowy conflict across the Middle East.
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It also complicates efforts by the United States, Israel’s main security partner, to enter into the atomic deal aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so that it cannot acquire a nuclear weapon. As news of the blackout emerged, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin landed in Israel on Sunday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Natanz’s electricity had been cut through the facility consisting of aboveground workshops and underground enrichment rooms, civilian nuclear program spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told Iranian state television.
“We still do not know the reason for this blackout and need to examine it in more detail,” Kamalvandi said. “Fortunately, there was no injury or damage and there is no contamination or particular problem.”
When asked if it was a “technical flaw or sabotage,” Kamalvandi declined to comment.
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Malek Shariati Niasar, a Tehran-based lawmaker and spokesperson for the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, wrote on Twitter that the incident was “very suspicious”, raising concerns over possible “sabotage and infiltration “. He said lawmakers were also seeking details of the incident.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s program, said it was “aware of media reports,” but declined to comment.
Natanz was largely built underground to withstand enemy airstrikes. It became a flashpoint of Western fears about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran was building its underground centrifuge facility at the site, some 200 kilometers south of the capital, Tehran. .
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at his state-of-the-art centrifuge assembly plant in July, which authorities later called sabotage. Iran is rebuilding this facility at the bottom of a nearby mountain.
Israel, Iran’s main regional enemy, has been suspected of carrying out this attack as well as launching other assaults, as world powers are now negotiating with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.
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Iran has also accused Israel of killing a scientist who launched the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely regarded as a joint US-Israel creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges in Natanz.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, senior researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s power outage. “If it’s not a coincidence, and it’s a big one, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’
Israel has not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly described Iran as the main threat his country has faced in recent weeks.
Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Gantz said Israel views America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.
“Tehran today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the State of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new deal with Iran will safeguard the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of America. Israel.”
The IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi also appears to be referring to Iran.
The “operations of the Israeli army in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They watch us, see (our) abilities and carefully weigh their steps.”
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Several Israeli media reported on Sunday that a cyber attack caused the power outage in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said Israel was likely behind the attack, citing Israel’s alleged responsibility in the Stuxnet attacks ten years ago. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as believing that the attack shut down entire sections of the facility. None of the reports contained sources or explanations of how the outlets came to this assessment.
In Tehran, Iranian officials have meanwhile awaited the arrival of South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, the first visit by a Prime Minister from Seoul since before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran released on Friday a South Korean oil tanker detained since January amid a dispute with Seoul over billions of dollars of its assets frozen there.
Iran announced on Saturday that it had launched a line of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials have also started testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
Since President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all limits on its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapon quality levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program for peaceful purposes.
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On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship that would serve as a floating base for Iranian Revolutionary Guard paramilitary forces off the coast of Yemen was hit by an explosion, possibly due to a limpet mine. Iran blamed Israel for the explosion. This attack escalated a long shadow war in Middle Eastern waterways targeting shipping in the region.
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