After nuclear site blackout, thunder from Iran, and silence from US

The White House said almost nothing in public on April 12 about the apparent explosion inside Iran's Natanz facility. PHOTO: MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/REUTERS

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - The last time centrifuges exploded at Iran's underground nuclear fuel-production centre in Natanz, more than a decade ago, the sabotage was the result of a joint Israeli-American cyber attack intended to deter Teheran from building nuclear weapons.

When they exploded again this weekend, the White House asserted that the United States had no involvement.

The operation raised the question of whether Israel was acting on its own to undermine American diplomacy as the Biden administration seeks to reconstitute a nuclear agreement with Iran - or whether Israel was operating with at least the tacit blessing of the United States, carrying out dirty work that would weaken Iran's negotiating position in the talks.

The White House was saying almost nothing in public on Monday (April 12) about the apparent explosion inside Iran's Natanz facility, which is more than 7.6m underground, and which destroyed the power supply that keeps the centrifuges spinning at supersonic speeds, enriching uranium.

"The US was not involved in any manner," the White House spokesman, Ms Jen Psaki, said Monday. "We have nothing to add on speculation about the causes or the impacts." White House officials did not comment on whether the US had been given advance notice of the attack.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was in Israel when the attack took place, held two press briefings before he left Israel on Monday and never once uttered the word Iran.

White House and State Department officials said they had no idea whether the Iranians would show up in Vienna again on Wednesday, when the talks were scheduled to resume.

In Teheran, lawmakers asked Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to suspend the talks, saying that Iran should not be engaged in negotiations when it is under attack.

"Talks under pressure have no meaning," said Mr Abbas Moghtadaei, the deputy chairman of Parliament's national security and foreign policy committee, said in a Clubhouse talk on Monday. "This was a message we conveyed very clearly today."

The Biden administration is seeking to revive an agreement, scuttled by former president Donald Trump three years ago, in which Iran accepted limits on its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the original agreement and has made no secret of his desire to blow up the talks along with the centrifuges.

Mr Zarif, in a statement broadcast by Iranian state television, said that Israel wanted "to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions". "But we will take our revenge from the Zionists," he continued.

His comments highlighted the risk of escalation in a years-long shadow war between Iran and Israel, one that is taking place in the deserts of Natanz, along the shipping routes of the Persian Gulf and in the leafy suburbs of Teheran, where Dr Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the leader of what US intelligence officials say was Iran's secret nuclear weapons programme, was killed in December by a remote-controlled gun as he drove to his weekend house.

For the Iranians, the attack this weekend was another humiliating indication that its programme had been penetrated by spies and saboteurs, who have carried out a series of brazen attacks. While Israel usually stays silent when attacks like this happen, Israeli news outlets, citing intelligence sources, attributed this one to the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

An intelligence official who asked not to be identified in order to discuss clandestine operations said an explosive device had been smuggled into the Natanz plant, was detonated remotely, and took out both the primary and backup electrical systems.

The head of the Iranian Parliament's energy committee, Dr Fereydoun Abbasi, appeared to confirm that account in an interview with state television on Monday.

An explosive device had been smuggled into the Natanz plant and was detonated remotely, an intelligence official said. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"The enemy's plot was very beautiful," he said. "I'm looking at it from a scientific point of view. They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged."

A spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Mr Behrouz Kamalvandi, said Monday that the blast had created a crater so big that he fell into it, injuring his head, back, leg and arm.

Just how much damage was done is unclear.

Intelligence officials suggested it would require many months for Iran to undo the damage.

Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said emergency power had been restored at Natanz on Monday and enrichment had not stopped at the facility. But it may be running at a fraction of the level is was before.

"A large portion of the enemy's sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped," he told Iranian media on Monday.

But the attack, the latest security breach in a series of brazen incursions in the past year, has led to finger-pointing in Teheran and accusations of infiltration in the highest ranks of Iran's security apparatus. The intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guard is responsible for both securing nuclear sites and protecting nuclear scientists.

Mr Moghtdaei said his committee would investigate what he called "very obvious security infiltrations". Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri said the entity responsible for safeguarding Natanz against attacks must be held accountable. The attacks, he said, could produce "catastrophic consequences" for Iran's reputation, economy and security.

And on social media, conservative commentators called for an overhaul in the leadership of the Atomic Agency and for the Supreme National Security Council to take over the nuclear file from the Foreign Ministry.

"The Natanz incident is either treason with infiltration or without," tweeted commentator Seyed Peyman Taheri. "The cracks of your incompetence are being filled. Fix the holes."

Some US officials, declining to speak on the record, expressed concern on Monday that the attack would drive the nuclear programme more deeply underground, where it would be hard to reach. Iran already headed in that direction years ago, when it built a small plant deep inside a mountain near the city of Qum.

More immediately, the leaking of details about Israeli involvement raised fears that Iran would seek to save face by mounting a stronger military response than usual.

"Once Israeli officials are quoted, it requires the Iranians to take revenge," Mr Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, said in an interview on Monday with a radio station run by the Israeli Army.

"There are actions that must remain in the dark," he said.

In Israel, some also questioned whether the attack had served a domestic purpose for Netanyahu, rather than just a foreign policy objective.

Netanyahu is standing trial for corruption and is struggling to form a new coalition government after a general election last month that gave no party an overall majority. Some analysts said they believed that a very public confrontation with Iran might help Netanyahu persuade wavering coalition partners that now is not the time to remove an experienced prime minister.

"He may want to both build up his image and create a little bit of a foreign policy crisis, which then helps him solve the coalition crisis," Professor Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel who has written extensive histories of Israeli intelligence operations, said Monday.

But publicly, the United States and Israel kept up the image of friendly allies.

At a joint press briefing in Jerusalem, Mr Austin did not mention Iran at all, while Netanyahu referred only obliquely to the attack Sunday.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme is peaceful and aimed at energy development. But Israel sees it as an existential threat, since Iranian leaders have often called for Israel's destruction.

"We both agree that Iran must never possess nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said on Monday. "My policy as prime minister of Israel is clear. I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel, and Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran's aggression, and terrorism." And in Washington, Ms Psaki said she expected that the talks with Iran would resume on Wednesday as planned.

"We expect them to be difficult and long," she said. "We have not been given any indication about a change in participation for these discussions."

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