Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource July 30, 2020

When it comes to Iran, not everything that goes boom in the night is sabotage

By Raz Zimmt

The recent series of unusual events in different locations around Iran, including fires and explosions in a nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, a missile production site, petrochemical centers, oil pipelinespower plants, and a medical clinic, has received growing interest from the international media.

The Israeli media covered those events obsessively, presenting them as part of a sabotage campaign engineered by Israel or another of Tehran’s foes aimed at delaying Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Perhaps due to this and the buzz surrounding the new Israeli espionage television series “Tehran,” those unexplained incidents were quickly linked to the ongoing shadow war between Israel and Iran. “Tehran” tells the story of Tamar Rabinyan, a young Mossad operative with Iranian roots, who is tasked with deactivating an Iranian power plant in order to disable air defense systems so that an Israeli airstrike can be carried out on a nuclear site.

The attribution of recent explosions in Iran to Israel does not come as a surprise. For at least the past two decades, Israel has been engaged in a concerted effort to prevent Tehran from becoming a military nuclear power. As Iran has neared the nuclear threshold, Israel has repeatedly employed kinetic, cyber, and covert operations to delay Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has disrupted operations at Iranian nuclear facilities with cyberattacks, such as Stuxnet during 2010, and the assassination of Iranian officials involved in the nuclear program—primarily nuclear scientists during 2010 – 2012.

Even though it is tempting to attribute these current events to foreign sabotage, it is important not to assume that all of these incidents have the same cause. An explosion at the nuclear site in Natanz on July 2—which, apparently, led to a significant delay in Iran’s ability to assemble advanced centrifuges capable of producing enriched uranium more efficiently—is not the same as a blast at a medical clinic in the heart of Tehran. The same is true for the incident at the Khojir missile production complex in eastern Tehran when compared to the fire at a power station in the city of Ahvaz, southwest Iran.

Not every explosion or fire in Tehran is the result of foreign subterfuge. Recent research carried out by Tiziana Corda, a political science PhD candidate at the University of Milan, revealed that such events frequently occur in Iran. Thus, she argues that these present occurrences are not necessarily anomalies. According to the Islamic Republic News Agency’s archive, there were at least ninety-seven fires or explosions between mid-May 2019 and the end of July 2019. That averages out to more than one per day over a period of 2.5 months. The data shows that, just like this year, there were explosions or fires in power plants, factories, hospitals, research centers, naval vessels, and arms depots in 2019.

Tiziana Corda’s research comparing recent explosions in Iran to last year (courtesy photo)

Moreover, at least some of the recent events are clearly related to the dismal condition of Iran’s infrastructure, which is a result of lackluster maintenance, negligent management, and human error. Following the June 30 gas explosion at the Sina Athar medical clinic in Tehran that killed nineteen people, Iran parliamentary construction committee member Eqbal Shakeri spoke to Tasnim News Agency. He noted that, in recent years, authorities had issued a number of warnings to the clinic’s owners over serious safety deficiencies in the building. The structure was originally intended to serve as a residential building but was converted by the owners into a medical center that housed hazardous equipment. Shakeri said that more than seven hundred unsafe clinics continue to operate in Tehran.

Nevertheless, the overall impact of recent incidents—whether intentional acts of sabotage or accidents—should not be underestimated, as they have created growing pressure on Iranian authorities and fostered a sense of insecurity among the Iranian public. The string of incidents has further diminished the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to protect them—a confidence already shaken by rampant mismanagement and an inability to address economic and social grievances. This trend could exacerbate the regime’s crisis of legitimacy, which has been increasingly evident in the wave of protests that began in late 2017 and unprecedentedly low voter turnout in the February 2020 parliamentary elections.

The pressure on Iranian leadership is compounded by the worsening economic crisis, the impact of COVID-19, and the increasing tensions between Iran and the West. In June, the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors adopted a resolution—the first of its kind since 2012—criticizing Iran for not letting its inspectors into sites suspected of being part of the country’s nuclear project. Additionally, the United States is pushing a resolution at the UN Security Council to extend the international embargo on the sale of conventional weapons to Iran, which is currently set to expire in October, and threatened to activate the “snapback” mechanism to renew all sanctions that were lifted by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In recent years, external threats have forced the Islamic Republic to consolidate its fight to stamp out domestic dissent. Consequently, it is fair to assume that recent incidents will lead to further repression of the regime’s enemies, both real and imagined. Since late June, eleven Iranian citizens have been sentenced to death for taking part in mass anti-government protests in November 2019. On July 20, Iran executed Mahmoud Mousavi-Majd, who was convicted of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Israeli Mossad. His execution comes only a few days after that of another Iranian, Reza Asgari, who was convicted of selling details of Iran’s missile program to the CIA after retiring from the defense ministry’s aerospace division in 2016.

Iranian hardliners have already pressed the government to take more proactive retaliatory steps, starting with an end to cooperation with the IAEA and even a withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy commission recently had to table a motion to suspend Tehran’s voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol of the NPT.

Even if the latest incidents cannot be connected and even if most of them are not the result of a sabotage campaign, the heightened sense of stress it foments inside Iran piles additional pressure on the government to take drastic measures. Eventually, Tehran may cave to those pressures, despite the leadership’s desire to avoid severe steps before it can recalibrate its strategy to reflect the results of the November US presidential election.

Dr. Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran. He is also a veteran Iran-watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces. Follow him on Twitter: @RZimmt.

Image: Firefighters put out the fire on fuel tanks after they were hit by an explosion in Kermanshah province, Iran July 28, 2020. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS