Crisis Management Iran Nuclear Nonproliferation Security & Defense

Fast Thinking

April 12, 2021

FAST THINKING: Did the Iran nuclear talks just blow up?

By Atlantic Council


Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for potential use in nuclear weapons may have suffered a severe blow on Sunday after an explosion knocked out power at its Natanz nuclear site. The Iranian government is denying reports that it could take as much as nine months to repair the damage, while blaming Israel for the sabotage (allegations Israel has yet to confirm). The Biden administration is distancing itself from the affair, as indirect talks continue in Vienna around reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Will the explosion blow up those negotiations? And what will its impact be on Iran itself and the country’s nuclear program? We turned to our Middle East team to assess the fallout.


  • Kirsten Fontenrose: Director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former US national-security official

What the explosion signaled

  • If Israel was indeed behind the action to disrupt Iran’s progress on nuclear enrichment, that shouldn’t surprise Iranian or US officials, Kirsten tells us. “Not only was it in keeping with patterns of Israeli operations to trip up Iran’s trot toward a nuclear weapon” capacity, she notes, but Israel has repeatedly made clear that it would act against Iran’s nuclear program if 1) Iran continued to accelerate its timeline for being able to build nuclear weapons, and 2) the stalemate on a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States persisted. “Both conditions were and are met.”
  • Kirsten adds that while the United States and Israel are allies, it’s possible that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was visiting Tel Aviv on Sunday as Iran reported the blackout at its nuclear facility, “only learned about this Natanz operation as it occurred.” The operation may have been “intended as a signal to the US as much as to Iran,” she says.
  • And she has some advice for Iranian leaders: “One mistake Iran should not make now is conflating their tit-for-tat with Israel with their negotiations with the US and Europe. This would only serve Israeli factions that do not support a renewed nuclear deal and would instead prefer to have justification to destroy all components of Iran’s nuclear program from the ground up.” 

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Where this leaves nuclear diplomacy

  • Barbara points out that while Israel is suspected of repeatedly sabotaging Iran’s nuclear-enrichment facilities and killing Iranian nuclear scientists, most recently last November, it has in the past “paused attacks while the US was engaged in serious diplomacy with Iran.” But if Israel carried out this weekend’s operation, it would have done so right when the two sides were re-engaging in diplomacy, which suggests that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “either doesn’t care what happens to the talks or is actively seeking to undermine US diplomacy.”
  • But that doesn’t mean this diplomacy is dead, she tells us. “Initial Iranian reaction to the attack suggests that Iran will continue to talk with the other parties to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and via mediators with the United States to see if the JCPOA can be salvaged,” she says.
  • The operation will, however, shake up the dynamics of the negotiations: It “will put even more pressure on the Iranian delegation to get the maximum possible concessions from the Biden administration in terms of rapid sanctions relief. The US delegation will have to explain what if anything it knew in advance about the Israeli action and what if anything it can do to ensure that Iran does not face” more such attacks even if it returns to compliance with the JCPOA. 
  • And the attack could have broader diplomatic repercussions. Barbara predicts that it could “further strain US relations with Israel and may lead Biden officials to cut back or make pro forma the consultations it has been holding with Israel about Iran policy.” 

The view in Iran

  • Holly has more on how all this is likely to play out in Iran. The blackout at Natanz, following a separate act of sabotage at a centrifuge-assembly workshop there in July 2020 and the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist in November 2020, is yet “another embarrassing exposure of the failures of Iran’s intelligence services,” she says. “Iran has become the playground for foreign intelligence services, in this case allegedly Israel.”
  • And what happens on that playground has real consequences for Iranian politics, she notes. In retaliation for the assassination of the Iranian scientist, for example “Iran’s hardline-majority parliament passed a law that would accelerate its nuclear program. Every attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure provides hardliners the fuel needed to denigrate the Hassan Rouhani administration for negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal, which they vehemently opposed from the beginning. It also galvanizes hardliners to double their efforts to push for expanding the country’s nuclear program.” 
  • Ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June, Rouhani’s “pragmatist-reformist camp is not very popular with the Iranian people” and has held out hope that “reviving the nuclear deal will lead to sanctions relief and, in turn, give them a much-needed boost of support,” Holly says. But the explosion at Natanz is also a big setback for the Iranian president, for whom “the failure to secure Iran’s sensitive nuclear infrastructure is damaging.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Kirsten Fontenrose, Barbara Slavin, and Holly Dagres

Image: A view of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility 250 km (155 miles) south of the Iranian capital Tehran, March 30, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo