Iran said it was looking at possible sabotage following recent blasts at several key Iranian sites, including the country’s main nuclear facility, a senior official said Friday, deepening the mystery around these incidents after other authorities initially sought to play down any suggestion of foul play.
“Considering we are in a serious economic war with the United States and we have conflicts in various fields, the first hypothesis is that these accidents could be a threat and caused by the enemy’s moves,” Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization, said on state television. Hostile action by “anti-revolutionary elements” was also a possibility, he said, referring to domestic opposition groups.
Mr. Jalali didn’t directly blame anyone for the blasts but said the country would respond if it is proven that Iran was hit by cyberattacks. He didn’t say what action might be taken.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said the cause of the accident at the nuclear site wouldn’t be immediately announced due to security considerations. Earlier, other Iranian authorities said the incidents were still under investigation.
An explosion occurred Thursday at Natanz, the site of Iran’s biggest uranium-enrichment facility. causing damage to a building identified by experts and diplomats as an advanced centrifuge assembly plant. Last week, a blast hit a Defense Ministry facility near a military site that has been crucial for Iran’s development of missiles and munitions. The ministry attributed the explosion to an industrial gas tank in a civilian area of Parchin.
In its latest statement on the Natanz incident, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that it had been informed about the blast by Iranian authorities who said the cause was unknown. The agency said it can confirm that the location of the incident doesn’t contain nuclear materials.
Separately late Friday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement that Iran had triggered a dispute mechanism in the 2015 nuclear deal that could lead to the deal being ended within 30 days.
Mr. Borrell, who chairs the committee overseeing the nuclear deal’s implementation, said that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had written to inform him of Iran’s decision, taken because of “Iran’s concerns regarding implementation issues” by France, Germany and the U.K., who remain parties to the nuclear deal.
Under the nuclear deal’s terms, the parties have 30 days to try to resolve the issues although that can be extended by mutual agreement. If at the end of that period, Iran believes the issue isn’t resolved and the European powers are in noncompliance with the deal, it can exit the deal.
Iran has repeatedly threatened in recent months that if the nuclear deal ends, it would consider withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which would significantly ratchet up tensions. That was the step taken by North Korea before they kicked out weapons inspectors and accelerated their nuclear weapons program.
European diplomats said the move didn’t appear intended as a first step to killing the deal but more likely amounted to pressure on Britain, France and Germany to back off pushing a probe of Iran’s past nuclear weapons work. The three European powers are also working with Washington to extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran that is supposed to expire in October, a move Tehran has denounced.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, was quoted by state television referring to the European pressure over Iran’s past nuclear work and its failure to curtail the economic impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran as the motives for its move.
Iran “strongly urges the three European countries that instead of moving in the path of the U.S. maximum pressure policy, they pave the ground for preserving and fully implementing the” nuclear deal, Mr. Mousavi was quoted saying.
President Trump has said his administration will stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. By killing the nuclear deal, Iran would ensure that international sanctions are reimposed on Iran. The European powers had themselves triggered the dispute mechanism in January because of Iran’s steps to reduce compliance with the nuclear accord. They suspended that move a few weeks later to give more time for talks with Tehran.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington heightened after the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran. The U.S. said the accord didn’t do enough to curb Iran’s conventional military capabilities, including its missile program, which could be used against U.S. allies in the region, such as Israel. Both sides pulled back from the brink of direct military confrontation earlier this year after a U.S. missile strike killed a top Iranian general in Iraq amid a spate of attacks targeting American troops in Iraq, which Washington blamed on Tehran’s proxies.
Iran’s nuclear facilities, including Natanz, have been the target of operations in the past.
The U.S. and Israel executed a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program, destroying centrifuges, infiltrating computer systems and disrupting enrichment at Natanz. The cyber-sabotage project known as Stuxnet was developed by the Central Intelligence Agency in conjunction with the Israeli government and other U.S. agencies.
Israel also was believed to be behind assassinations of Iranian scientists working on Iran’s nuclear program in the early 2010s.
Iran has a range of domestic opposition groups, some in exile, that want to topple the country’s clerical leadership. BBC Persian reported it had received a claim of responsibility for the recent incident at Natanz by a previously unknown group calling itself “Cheetahs of the Homeland,” which said its members were part of “underground opposition with Iran’s security apparatus.” The claim couldn’t be independently verified.
The blasts come at a time of low public trust in the Iranian government. In January, Iranian authorities initially said that the crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet outside Tehran amid heightened tensions with the U.S. was caused by a fire in an engine that had made the pilot lose control of the aircraft. After three days, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted to having shot down the plane by mistake.
Visiting Natanz on Thursday, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s atomic agency, said there was no interruption to enrichment activities, which are conducted underground.
He dismissed reports of possible contamination, describing the damaged building as a “shed” that contained no nuclear material.
A spokesman for the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency said it was in contact with Iranian authorities over the incident to determine whether it would be able to continue its monitoring work at the site.
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