July 13, 2020

Memo: Explosion at Natanz Nuclear Facility and its Implications

Last week, an explosion at Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in Iran set off a flurry of speculation about the incident and what it means for U.S.- Iran relations in the lead up the U.S. Presidential elections in November 2020. In a bombshell report, the New York Times cited a “Middle East intelligence official with knowledge of the episode” who said that Israel had infiltrated the facility and set off a “powerful bomb” that tore open and destroyed a facility used to calibrate new centrifuges for the enrichment program. The Washington Post cited sources depicting a similar picture of the incident. A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the most prominent national security institution in the country, said that the cause of the incident at Natanz has been found, but will not be revealed for now due to “security reasons.”

Initially, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) sought to downplay the fire, calling it an “incident” that only affected an “industrial shed.” However, on July 5th, the AEOI’s spokesman reversed his initial comments, noting that “it’s possible that this incident will slow down the development and expansion of advanced centrifuges” and that the development of new centrifuges could be delayed in the “medium term.”  The explosion at Natanz occurred after other mysterious incidents in Iran over the last three weeks that have heightened the already-tense stand-off between the U.S., Israel, and Iran. 

Below, we discuss the implications of the recent explosions at Natanz and how it may affect Iran and the region moving forward: 

Over the last two decades, covert action against Iran’s nuclear program has slowed it down temporarily, but at the longer-term cost of accelerating it. 

  • Between 2007 – 2012, at least five Iranian nuclear scientists critical to the nuclear program’s development were killed, all at the hands of Israeli intelligence or their affiliated assets. The assassination campaign was accompanied by an intensifying barrage of cyberattacks by the U.S. and Israel, culminating in what is considered the world’s first digital weapon” – Stuxnet. It delayed work at the facility for months and set a precedent for the now escalating cyber-war between the U.S., Israel, and Iran.

  • However, while these acts of sabotage slowed the program down, they did nothing to change the ultimate trajectory of the program. Iran’s construction of centrifuges accelerated during this period, from over 8,000 centrifuges installed at Natanz in 2009 to 19,000 by 2013. 

In contrast, the only avenue that has curbed Iran’s nuclear program over the long haul has been the diplomatic path and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

  • Before the implementation of JCPOA, Iran had its most extensive nuclear program to date. In 2015, Iran had 19,000 centrifuges in Natanz alone and had stockpiled approximately 15,000 kilograms of enriched uranium.

  • Five years later, even after the Trump administration withdrew from the deal and Iran began to slowly reduce its compliance, Iran now has only 5,060 operating centrifuges and 1,571 kilograms of enriched uranium as a result of the deal.

  • By virtually every measure, the JCPOA put verifiable caps on Iran’s nuclear program and substantially reduced the risks posed by it, something covert action could never achieve.

  • Neither the Stuxnet attack nor the assassination of scientists stopped the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, years of painstaking negotiations and diplomacy, undergirded by mutual interests and respect, created the most intrusive nuclear inspections regime in history and helped dial back tensions between Iran and the U.S. to its lowest point in forty years.

The strike at Natanz will assuredly harden security perceptions inside Iran and add greater impetus for hardliners to rebuff engagement with the West, tighten domestic controls at home, and potentially push Iran to hide aspects of its nuclear program.

  • Over the last two decades, Iran has made the strategic decision not to pursue nuclear weapons and to by-and-large comply with IAEA inspectors despite the Trump administration’s reneging of the deal.

  • Since the imposition of sanctions by the U.S., Iran has pursued a strategy of “strategic patience,” hoping to wait out President Trump’s tenure. So far, the Iranian government has resisted growing calls from its domestic constituents to respond and have demurred from placing blame. The incident at Natanz may change that.

  • The wave of explosions in Iran has set off a flurry of conspiracy theories and anxiety throughout Iranian society and its security apparatus. Iran is on edge, and that sense of insecurity is surely destined to harden Iran’s attitudes towards negotiations and embolden forces within the country who ideologically oppose interactions with Western countries.

The logic of covert action is built on an assumption that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. Successive reports from U.S. intelligence concluded that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. 

  • Iran’s program since then has been used by the government as leverage in its negotiations with the West. Suggestions from hawks that the existence of Iran’s nuclear program inherently means they will use it to make a bomb are misplaced.

The timing of other incidents raises the possibility that these events may be connected to a broader attempt to pressure Iran. However, it is still unclear if any of these other events are related to one another. 

  • The most concerning incident occurred on June 25th near the Parchin military complex, which is one of Iran’s most prominent military bases and weapons manufacturing locations.

  • While Iran’s infrastructure is in many cases poorly managed and notoriously outdated, given decades of isolation and sanctions, a series of other incidents, including fires at electricity and petrochemical plants and an explosion at a clinic in Tehran that killed 19 people also occurred. 

Multiple flashpoints, all made worse by the incident at Natanz, will converge to create a treacherous landscape in the lead up to the U.S. Presidential election.

  • The scheduled expiration of the U.N. Arms Embargo on Iran has become a flashpoint as the U.S. attempts to isolate Iran further on the international stage. Also, Iran’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors into two undeclared sites connected to Iran’s pre-2003 weaponization work has pushed the E3, ardent supporters of the JCPOA, to censure Iran via a resolution at the IAEA Board of Governors.
  • Regional tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria, as well as Iran and the U.S. in Iraq, along with a host of other fault lines, seem to be also heating up at the most precarious time.

  • The incident at Natanz, and the anxious climate surrounding Iran, will only serve to exacerbate the tensions surrounding all these issues. In the months ahead, U.S. policymakers must be vigilant to these changing dynamics and remain wary of any attempts to undermine diplomatic achievement and efforts to further drag the U.S. into endless war and conflict. 
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