Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource July 10, 2020

A series of unusual events in Iran point to sabotage. How will Tehran respond?

By Borzou Daragahi

Something strange has been happening in Iran. A spate of explosions has struck highly secure and sensitive sites, as well as regular industrial locales, including factories and gas pipelines, and even a clinic in a fancy part of north Tehran.

On July 2, an explosion and fire struck the most crucial target yet—a Natanz nuclear facility workshop, with even Iran admitting that the destruction had caused a major setback. The workshop is used to design and assemble advanced centrifuges, which is essential for enriching uranium for possible industrial and military uses. The New York Times cited an unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence official saying that Israel was behind the bombing. Asked about the fire, Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz said, “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us.”

In addition to the industrial accidents, Iran has recorded hundreds brush fires and wildfires this year, a large number that has led some to conclude that at least a portion of those were caused by arson. “In our view, a percentage of these fires is intentional,” Colonel Ali Abbasnejad, commander of Iran’s park rangers, said in June, according to local media.

Admittedly, Iran’s infrastructure is in bad shape and accidents happen. I once covered a bizarre 2004 incident in which a train loaded with chemicals blew up in Neyshabur in northeastern Iran, killing at least two hundred people. However, it is highly unusual for so many explosions and fires to occur in such a short period of time. And, given the geopolitical climate, it is reasonable to surmise that some outside group or groups—possibly backed by one of Iran’s many state enemies—may be behind them. Perhaps, their goal is to sow discord in the country or provoke the leadership to retaliate in a conflict that would draw in the United States. 

Every analyst, diplomat, and spy with a focus on Iran is considering that possibility, as is Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, which includes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

“When you have [these] many accidents that close together, one’s mind automatically goes to who benefits from this,” said one senior Western diplomat involved in Iran negotiations. “If anyone benefits from this type of madness and chaos it’s the countries that are concerned about Iran’s supposed mad dash for the bombIsrael and the United States.”

The question now is how Iran will respond. Will it be goaded into taking action? That somewhat depends on the nature of the alleged attacks. 

At first glance, many of the explosions appear straight out of the US intelligence handbook for covertly undermining unfriendly regimes; pinprick attempts aimed at slowing productivity and sowing confusion and fear. “Try to commit acts for which large numbers of people could be responsible,” says the US manual on sabotage. “For instance, if you blow out the wiring in a factory at a central fire box, almost anyone could have done it.”

It is very much within the realm of possibility that the US has authorized clandestine operations to sow chaos in Iran. Washington reportedly elevated CIA operative Mike D’Andrea, nicknamed Ayatollah Mike, recently, in its efforts to spy on and combat Iran’s ambitions. The individuals who populate the upper echelons of the “maximum pressure” policy in the Trump administration are just the sort of Washington hawks who would attempt to provoke Iran into a conflict, drive it out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action once and for all, or compel it to the negotiating table by launching clandestine attacks. 

It is also conceivable that Israel would undertake such an operation. Stuxnet, the Trojan horse malware that badly damaged Iran’s centrifuges, was regarded as the brainchild of Israel and the US.

Saudi Arabia may be another potential culprit. In Denmark, they have been accused of bankrolling Iranian Arab exiles, who have allegedly been involved in terrorist activities in Iran, by prosecutors.

Iran has frequently absorbed terrorist attacks by groups with potential foreign backingincluding Kurdish, Arab, and Baluchi militantswithout overreacting. But the incident at Natanz, which may have destroyed a major part of Iran’s nuclear research infrastructure, could have crossed the line. 

Yet, even in that incident, the nature of the attack matters. Did someone smuggle a bomb into the facility? That would be very provocative. Could someone have caused such a blast simply by using cyber tools? That would be less provocative and would prompt a less kinetic response, say experts.

“This has happened before where someone crossed signals to blow up a gas pipeline totally from remote,” claimed one cybersecurity expert who works with a Western government. “This is possible. You can interfere with the controls of the system and cause something that looks like an accident.”

Someone is almost certainly trying to goad Iran into miscalculation, one former US intelligence official said in an interview. Iran continues to remain sore over the assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January. A hardline parliament eager to make its mark has just been sworn in. If it were six months ago, Iran would most likely have retaliated—as it did in response to the Soleimani killing—in accordance with its policy of matching escalation with escalation. 

European interlocutors have been urging Iran to exercise restraint, but often have little access or influence beyond the pragmatists at the Iranian foreign ministry under Mohammad Javad Zarif. China’s relations with Tehran have strengthened in recent months, and they are likely counseling patience and caution in the hopes of preventing both a destabilizing conflict in the Middle East and a crisis which could lead to a second Trump term. 

The wild card is Russia, say analysts and diplomats, which may see a further increase of tensions in the Middle East as in its interests, and may be more sanguine than other nations of the world at the prospect of another four years of Trump. 

So far, the Iranians appear to be biding their time. In addition to the November elections, Iran is nervously awaiting the October expiration of a decade-long United Nations arms embargo. Washington is attempting desperately to get the rest of the Security Council to extend the ban while Iran is trying to be on its best behavior. 

“Staying patient is what we’ve been saying to the Iranians for years,” said the Western diplomat. “They could have chosen to react in various ways. They have been pretty calm and restrained. My gut tells me they don’t want to be sucked into anything in the run-up to September and October.”

While losing the Natanz facility, which was only made operational in 2018, was a loss, the Iranians will likely choose to hold off on any response for now. Even the perpetrators of the alleged bombing appear to have refrained from taking credit in a likely attempt to discourage reprisal. If a response comes, it will likely come after the elections—perhaps, in the weeks before inauguration day. 

“They need first of all to make up their minds [on] what caused this,” the former Israeli Defense Force military intelligence chief General Yossi Kuperwasser said in an interview. “They would probably rather wait until Trump is over to respond. The major goal they have in their mind is to see Trump disappear. Natanz is one of the problems out of many Iran has to face, the main problem is the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign from the Americans. It causes them much more problems.”

Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent. He has covered the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. He is also a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou.

Image: A view of a damaged building after a fire broke out at Iran's Natanz Nuclear Facility, in Isfahan, Iran, July 2, 2020. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS