Archive for July 6, 2020

Israel Launches New OFEK-16 Spy Satellite Into Space 

July 6, 2020

 

 

Natanz nuclear site explosion looking worse for Iran amid internal crisis 

July 6, 2020

Source: Natanz nuclear site explosion looking worse for Iran amid internal crisis – The Jerusalem Post

For Iran this embarrassment is compounded by an increasing crescendo of articles that not only highlight the destruction at the site but also point fingers at who did it.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
The evidence is piling up for Iran’s leadership: A mysterious explosion at a warehouse at its sensitive and advanced nuclear facility of Natanz has caused deep and lasting damage that has set back its nuclear work. For Iran this embarrassment is compounded by an increasing crescendo of articles that not only highlight the destruction at the site but also point fingers at who did it. Al-Jarida media in Kuwait had first alleged it was a cyberattack and now The New York Times has said that Israel was responsible.

Iran had already begun to shift focus from an “accident” as it first claimed the mysterious explosion was on July 2, to a more serious incident. Iran had to weigh the consequences of misleading international atomic energy inspectors and officials. After all, if Iran said it as an accident and then said it was attacked, that might make Tehran look incompetent. Having shot down a civilian airliner in January the regime already looks incompetent.

The New York Times piece alleges that a powerful bomb was behind the attack. The explosion harmed an area that relates to advanced centrifuges. Iran has said over the past year that it is increasing the number of IR-6 centrifuges at Natanz. Last year there were reportedly some 60 IR-6 advanced centrifuges being used by Iran and uranium hexaflouride gas was being fed into some of them. Iran’s Tasnim news showed off a truck containing a cylinder of uranium hexafluoride gas leaving the enrichment facility at Natanz last year. Now a key facility in the supply chain and development of this advanced work has been badly damaged or destroyed, reports indicate.

For now Iran is concerned about the embarrassment of the Natanz incident. ISNA, Fars News, Tasnim and other Iranian media that are linked to the state or state-run are not pointing fingers or discussing the incident. Iran’s message was that the explosion was an accident and that Iran would investigate and determine if it was intentional and then Iran would weigh its response.

Neighboring countries are holding their breath. Kuwait’s media has stopped covering the incident and Gulf media is also waiting to see what may happen. Iran is in the middle of a series of political crises. The Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in parliament over the weekend where he was insulted and heckled. He has been called “liar” by key media and officials. Zarif always projects an air of happy arrogance abroad where he feels most comfortable and is often worshiped by western diplomats. But at home Zarif can’t pull the wool over everyone’s eyes all the time, and he has been castigated. In addition, the speaker of parliament, Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf looks to play an increasing role in foreign policy. He has been speaking with Palestinian factions recently, urging hatred of Israel. Iran has also triggered the nuclear deal dispute mechanism, oddly just a day after the Natanz incident.

To understand Iran’s Natanz reaction we must thus understand that there is internal political chaos bubbling under the surface in Iran. There is economic uncertainty. There are a variety of problems in Iran and the nuclear drive to add centrifuges and gas and all of this is just a piece of the puzzle. Iran’s IRGC is itching for a fight. It has lost its key official, Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani in a January US airstrike. It’s new Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani is an expert on Afghanistan, not on Israel and the Arab world. Yet he was in Syria in June to oversee Iran’s regional game plan. But Iran knows that its ally in Syria is undergoing an economic disaster from US sanctions, and its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon is also facing economic chaos in Beirut. Iran’s only real victory is on the world stage where Russia and China want to help it end an arms embargo. Iran would like that to happen so it can continue to funnel weapons to groups like the Houthis in Yemen. Even on that file Iran has seen two weapons shipments intercepted by the US Navy in the last year.

Natanz is important and the increasing spotlight put on the damage and accusations of who did it will rile up Iran’s IRGC and demands for a response. But Iran will have to choose carefully its next moves in a region that is a powder keg and one where it is trying to open up diplomatic avenues.

 

Israel was behind blast at Iran nuclear site, Mideast intel official tells NYT 

July 6, 2020

Source: Israel was behind blast at Iran nuclear site, Mideast intel official tells NYT | The Times of Israel

Officials says powerful bomb was used to damage building involved in centrifuge production at Natanz, denies Israeli connection to other recent fires in the Islamic Republic

This photo released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

This photo released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

A fire that damaged a building used for producing centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site was sparked by Israel, a Middle Eastern intelligence official told the New York Times on Sunday.

The unidentified official said the blast Thursday at the Natanz nuclear complex was caused by a powerful bomb.

The Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel wasn’t linked to several other recent mysterious fires in Iran over the past week.

The report came as Iran admitted that Natanz incurred “considerable” damage from the fire last week, as satellite pictures appeared to show widespread devastation at the sensitive facility.

A satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows a damaged building after a fire and explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, on July 3, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Iran had sought to downplay the damage from the blaze, though analysts said it had likely destroyed an above-ground lab being used to prepare advanced centrifuges before they were installed underground.

“We first learned that, fortunately, there were no casualties as a result of the incident, but financial damages incurred to the site due to incident were considerable,” said Iran’s atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi.

He confirmed that the damaged building was a centrifuge assembly center and not an “industrial shed,” as earlier claimed.

“More advanced centrifuge machines were intended to be built there,” he said, adding that the damage would “possibly cause a delay in development and production of advanced centrifuge machines in the medium term.”

Authorities have pinpointed the source of the fire, but are withholding the information for national security reasons, he said.

The building was first constructed in 2013 for the development of advanced centrifuges, though work was halted there in 2015 under the nuclear deal with world powers, he added.

When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, the work there was renewed, Kamalvandi said.

He said that the fire had damaged “precision and measuring instruments,” and that the center had not been operating at full capacity due to restrictions imposed by Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran began experimenting with advanced centrifuge models in the wake of the US unilaterally withdrawing from the deal two years ago.

Satellite images of the Natanz site published Sunday by the London-based Iranian news site Iran International appeared to show that the site had incurred more significant damage from a mysterious blast last week than what Tehran had initially disclosed.

The photos showed most of the building flattened with debris scattered around the perimeter, indicating that it had been targeted in an explosion.

Experts assess that the damage from the apparent explosion has set back Iran’s nuclear program by a year, according to Israel’s Channel 13 news. The network said Sunday that the lab in Natanz where advanced centrifuges are assembled had been destroyed.

In this frame grab from Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, three versions of domestically-built centrifuges are shown in a live TV program from Natanz, an Iranian uranium enrichment plant, in Iran, June 6, 2018. (IRIB via AP)

In 2018, Iran showed off IR-2, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges at the site, in what was seen as a warning to Europe to stick to the nuclear deal after the withdrawal from the accord by the US. Pictures have also purported to show IR-8 centrifuges at Natanz, though Iranian officials have also said the site could not yet handle the ultra-advanced centrifuges.

The fire was one of a series of mysterious disasters to strike sensitive Iranian sites in recent days, leading to speculation that it may be the result of a sabotage campaign.

Also Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would extend the term of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen until June 2021, citing unspecified “security challenges.”

The spymaster is famed in the Mossad ranks as an operations man. Under his watch, the Mossad has reportedly grown in personnel and budgets and has focused on espionage operations targeting the Iranian nuclear program.

An Israeli TV report Friday night said that Israel was bracing for a possible Iranian retaliation if it determines Jerusalem is behind the Natanz explosion.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz played down the speculation earlier Sunday, saying that not everything that happened there could be blamed on Israel.

On Saturday, an explosion reportedly damaged a power plant in Ahvaz, Iran, which was later followed by reports of a chlorine gas leak at a petrochemical center in southeast Iran.

The previous week a large blast was felt in Tehran, apparently caused by an explosion at the Parchin military complex, which defense analysts believe holds an underground tunnel system and missile production facilities.

The Fars news agency, which is close to the country’s ultra-conservatives, initially reported that the Parchin blast was caused by “an industrial gas tank explosion” near a facility belonging to the defense ministry. It cited an “informed source” in saying the site of the incident was not related to the military.

However, this was largely disputed by defense analysts as satellite photographs of the Parchin complex emerged showing large amounts of damage at the site.

Iran long has denied seeking nuclear weapons, though the IAEA previously said Iran had done work in “support of a possible military dimension to its nuclear program” that largely halted in late 2003.

Western concerns over the Iranian atomic program led to sanctions and eventually to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The US under President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018, leading to a series of escalating attacks between Iran and the US, and to Tehran abandoning the deal’s production limits.

 

With Iran in its sights, Israel launches new spy satellite into orbit

July 6, 2020

Source: With Iran in its sights, Israel launches new spy satellite into orbit | The Times of Israel

Defense Ministry says Ofek-16, an ‘optoelectronic reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities,’ blasted off at 4 a.m., undergoing tests after entering orbit

Israel's Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite takes off from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Israel’s Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite takes off from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Israel launched a new spy satellite into orbit from a launchpad in the center of the country early Monday morning, the Defense Ministry said.

“The Defense Ministry and Israel Aerospace Industries successfully launched into space the reconnaissance satellite ‘Ofek 16,’ which entered into its orbit,” the ministry said in a statement.

Israel is one of a small number of countries in the world that operate reconnaissance satellites, giving it advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities. As of April, this cadre included Iran, which successfully launched a spy satellite into orbit after years of failed attempts.

“Our network of satellites lets us watch the entire Middle East — and even a bit more than that,” said Shlomi Sudari, the head of IAI’s space program.

The reconnaissance satellite was fired into space at 4 a.m. using a Shavit launch vehicle that took off from a launchpad in the Palmachim air base in central Israel, the ministry said.

The Ofek-16 is an “optoelectronic reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities,” the ministry said. It is the latest satellite in the Ofek series to be launched into space, following the Ofek-11, which entered orbit in 2016.

According to Sudari, the Ofek-16 is the “brother” of the Ofek-11, containing many of the same capabilities, along with a few “light improvements, in terms of precision.” Defense Ministry officials refused to comment on the jump in the name, from Ofek-11 to Ofek-16.

“The Ofek-16 is highly advanced, including breakthrough ‘blue and white’ technology that serves our defense interests,” Sudari said, using a term that refers to the colors of the Israeli flag to signify domestically produced capabilities.

Though the main function of the new spy satellite will likely be monitoring Iran and developments in its nuclear and missile programs, defense officials denied any symbolism in conducting the launch amid growing reports that Israel was responsible for a number of recent explosions in the Islamic Republic, including one at a uranium enrichment facility and another at a missile production plant.

“The timing was planned far in advance,” Sudari said.

Sudari said the Ofek-16 would operate on a low-Earth orbit, similar to the other Ofek satellites.

“Under the original launch plan, the [Ofek-16] satellite entered orbit around the Earth and began to beam back data,” the Defense Ministry said early on Monday.

Israel’s Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite is seen before it was launched from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Engineers from the ministry and Israel Aerospace Industries began performing a series of tests to ensure that the satellite was operating correctly. The ministry said these checks would continue “until the satellite enters full operation shortly.”

Amnon Hariri, the head of the Defense Ministry’s Space Department, beamed that the launch was “eloquent,” with no hiccups.

Once operational, the satellite will be operated by the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 9900, a visual intelligence detachment that controls all of the nation’s spy satellites.

“The State of Israel’s technological and intelligence superiority is the cornerstone of its security,” Defense Minister Gantz wrote on Twitter. “We’ll continue to strengthen and fortify Israel’s strength on every front and every place.”

This was the first launch of an Israeli spy satellite into space since the Ofek-11 in September 2016.

The Ofek-11 experienced initial technical issues shortly after launch, but engineers on the ground were able to stabilize it and get it working.

According to the Defense Ministry, there were no such issues with the Ofek-16.

Last year, Israel also put the Amos-17 communications satellite into orbit, using a SpaceX rocket that was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Israel launched its first satellite, the Ofek 1, into space in 1988, footage of which was released by the Defense Ministry in 2018.

It was not until seven years later, in 1995, that Israel launched a reconnaissance satellite into space capable of photographing the Earth.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

 

The things that go bump in Iran’s nights

July 6, 2020

A detailed analysis of the three recent “kaboom” events in Iran.

https://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/2020/07/03/the-things-that-bump-in-irans-nights/

For the third time in five days, Iran has been rocked by massive explosions yesterday (July 2).  All three are mysterious, with the only clarity being that Iranian official explanations lack credibility or consistency.  In other words, we do not know for sure what happened, or what was destroyed, but we do know the Iranian government is unable to tell the truth about any of them.

THE FACTS AS KNOWN

The first blasts occurred at the Khojir missile facility, which the Iranians erroneously say was the Parchin military base. They further claimed that it was in a civilian area outside the military site.  Satellites show it was at Khojir, close but not the same as Parchin, and that it was in the center of a missile solid fuel production complex. At the same time, there was an explosion and fire at a power plant complex in Shiraz, which plunged the city into darkness. For an analysis of these two blasts, click HERE.

Two days later, on June 30, a large fire and subsequent series of explosions destroyed an underground complex beneath what the Iranians described as a medical clinic in the Tajrish Square area of Tehran itself.  The blast caused a fire, which was followed by several additional secondary explosions of considerable magnitude.

Video of the secondary blasts can be seen HERE at 36 seconds and HERE at 19 seconds.

Iranian authorities at first claimed this was an explosion of medical oxygen tanks stored in a second-story below ground level in a modest five-story medical clinic for MRIs named Sina Athar.  Gas tanks of the size required to produce the blasts in the video would have had to have been larger than the oxygen tanks commonly seen in U.S. hospitals and medical/nursing facilities, which again begs the question of why the Iranian government would place multiple industrial sized oxygen tanks in an enclosed space under a small medical facility which conducts MRIs and does not need to use large amounts of oxygen.

To deepen the plot, the next day the Iranian government issued an arrest warrant for several people, while the Iranian National Gas Co. denied this was a gas explosion.  Local governmental authorities changed the official story as well, and began claiming the blasts were a result of an electrical fire without giving any coherent explanation as to what the fuel source was of the large initial and secondary explosions.  Iranian TV outlets did not help stem the speculation because, as they had done with Parchin, they released footage that was clearly tightly cropped and showed damage at the edge of the destruction, with the source of it inescapably behind the camera shots.  We have no footage yet of the building damaged itself, which given the force of destruction of the secondary blasts captured on social media must have destroyed the building.

At this point, there is no public knowledge of a secret facility underneath this clinic or an adjacent building, so it would be impossible to analyze what might have been damaged if this was something more than just a clinic.

Two days later, on the morning of July 2, a massive explosion rocked the Natanz nuclear facility near Isfahan. Immediately the Iranians admitted a minor explosion occurred, but claimed it occurred in a building that was an empty, minor storage building under construction at the edge of the facility. This is itself suspicious since Iran is required under previous nuclear agreements, including the 2015 JCPOA,  to report any new construction at the Natanz facility, but had not done so. Moreover, not only have the Iranians thus far failed to provide a reported cause of the explosion, but the imagery provided by Iranian opposition groups shows a very large, devastated building that would have been caused by a large blast.

By evening, an unknown opposition group, named the “Panthers of the Nation,” claimed that it had attacked the Natanz plant. Some opposition groups claim a newly-constructed centrifuge assembly workshop was destroyed.  Arms control groups in the West noted that the building was previously identified by the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran as a centrifuge assembly plant.  Iranian opposition groups released an image of an entry doorway, above which it clearly is marked as a centrifuge assembly plant. For Images, click HERE.

Finally, on July 3, the Iranian regime still did not admit that the incident in Natanz was sabotage, but did say it would withhold further comment or explanation given a security investigation. Moreover, it oddly warned the world that any cyber attack on its nuclear installations would be met with a “withering” response.

ANALYSIS

Those are the known facts of what happened.  But what explains this unlikely coincidence of events?

One cannot rule out that despite all the inconsistencies and clearly fabricated and incredible explanations, Iran simply had a bad week of accidents.  Iran’s system is so corrupt that Iranians have come to regard the constant stream of catastrophes to which they are subject as the wages of the vast incompetence.

However, while the explosions may be coincidental and resulting from the incompetence of Iranian authorities driven by pervasive corruption, it is looking increasingly possible that someone is incrementally sabotaging the Iranian nuclear and missile program.  This suspicion is strengthened by the claims by an opposition group that the events at Natanz were the result of its attack. The highly sensitive nature of at least two of sites involved in these incidents further deepen the suspicion.

If this is indeed the hand of some entity seeking to damage Iran’s nuclear program, and because these events are so tightly spaced together to suggest a common actor, we can draw some preliminary conclusions.

Starting with the Iranian opposition group, this is the first time anyone has heard of them.  It could be either a group acting alone, a group acting in coordination with a foreign power, or a foreign power acting using the fictitious cover of domestic opposition group. This is probably not a group acting alone, since the sophistication of collecting at the site and operational intelligence, as well as striking so broadly and consistently without leaving a trail could hardly have been done without some highly capable assistance from a nation-state.  Moreover, there would have been no incentive to avoid claiming credit for all the attacks, since publicizing potency is the currency of attraction for opposition groups.  More likely, ths was either an opposition group working with a foreign power, or a foreign power acting with a fictitious cover. But who? The two likely suspects are clearly the United States and Israel.

Israel and the U.S. share a common aim of stopping Iran as soon as possible from advancing in its nuclear program. And yet they have different aims surrounding the context of any operation.  The United States has a history of acting overtly using its own power only. Nor does it have a tradition of keeping the attacks ambiguous.  When General Soleimani was killed last winter, the United States fairly quickly accepted the credit.  Indeed, such an overt act advances traditional American foreign policy goals since it draws a red line, which when crossed triggers an American reaction and is followed by the implied warning to the offending country that it will face worse if it tried again.

Was this an U.S. or US-Backed Attack?

Deterrence is central to U.S. calculations when acting.  For the United States, ambiguity generally dilutes the message of threat underpinning such deterrence. Generally as well, the United States does not fear escalation since the preponderance of U.S. power guarantees that the offending country will be further defeated and humiliated, deepening the effect of deterrence. As such, given our historical reliance on our own power and tapping its use to establish deterrence, the United States rarely employs sophisticated James Bond-like operations when not needed and could be easily done overtly instead. Traditionally, we would just rather more brazenly bring our might and reach to bear without concern for either the attack being clearly an attack or our being identified as the attacker.  Moreover, the U.S has little or no incentive in an attack being conducted subtly enough to allow the Iranian government to save face.

Finally, the United States does not work with Iran’s opposition groups, much to their great frustration. As such, the only real option for the United States, if it was behind these attacks, was to use its own forces on the ground or remotely. To use special forces spread out over a week rather than in one coordinated attack, however, would needlessly risk compromising surprise, thus endangering special forces without any real tactical or strategic rationale.

Was this an Israeli or Israeli-Backed Attack?

Israel shares the American interest in stopping Iran’s program, but it has several additional concerns that change the context and method in which it would conduct such an attack.  Hizballah right now has close to several hundred of thousands of missiles pointed at Israel from Lebanon (some with very substantial warheads), with many more in Hamas’s hands from Gaza. Hizballah and Hamas can be expected to respond to any overt Israeli attack on Iran. While Israel can handle such a reaction, the destruction and death in Israel from a retaliatory war would not be inconsequential, and the occupation of both parts of Lebanon and Gaza inevitable, with all the agony that would entail.

Second, Israel is under great pressure from Europe on its own reported nuclear program.  It also harbors great worries about the American left.  Over the last decade, policies challenging Israel’s purported nuclear program which were long peddled by the European Union have finally gained traction with a U.S. Democrat administration, and the overall direction of the Democratic party has convinced Israelis that they no longer have its support on their purported nuclear program.

Earlier this decade, the Israelis were horrified when the Obama administration abandoned Israel as protector at Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) review conferences, despite solemn assurances over 50 years and seven administrations to never do so. And Israel was not even notified ahead of the abandonment, but was broadsided by a coordinated US-EU diplomatic effort.   As such, Israel fears a push for a nuclear free weapons zone in the Middle East focused on the idea that Iran alone cannot be asked to disarm or surrender its nuclear program, and thus any genuine move to disarm Iran would require simultaneous, or even preceding, Israeli disarmament.  Israel expects that an overt attack would trigger a massive international effort to focus on Israel’s reported nuclear program, which the Democrats here would also embrace. So the Israelis are loathe to overtly attack Iran given the expectation that the resulting diplomatic upheaval would settle eventually into primarily a focused effort to impose immense international pressure on Israel’s reported nuclear program.

Over recent years, Israeli institutes and reportedly even its security structures have gamed out repetitively how Iran would react to an Israeli strike on its nuclear program. The results almost always suggested that if the attacks were uncredited and subtle, the Iranians would prefer to save face and simply call them industrial accidents in insignificant buildings or facilities. If Iranian officials were to admit an attack on the nuclear program, or to be unable to deny it, they be would be forced to retaliate overtly — namely war via Hamas and Hizballah.  But if even partially deniable, they would prefer not to escalate. While a resulting war would be painfully damaging to Israel, it would decisively wipe Hizballah out, which in turn would destroy their ability to retain their grip over Syria and Lebanon.  In short, Iran has little incentive to seek an escalation with Israel, and Israel does have an incentive to allow the Iranian regime to save face.

So, Israel has every interest to have Iran save face and just digest the attacks.  Indeed, it should be noted that Israel never claims credit for its fairly frequent attacks on targets in Syria, since it similarly seeks to give the Russians and Syrians the opportunity to save face and refrain from retaliation.

Finally, Israel does work with Iranian opposition movements, and could easily use their infrastructure to operate on the ground in Iran to conduct such attacks.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Given these considerations, operating under the unproven assumption that these series of accidents in Iran were in fact a coordinated intentional attack to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that this was primarily an Israeli operation, possibly done in coordination with local Iranian opposition groups, and quite possibly also coordinated or even jointly executed with, but not primarily led, by the United States.  In my opinion, Israel would not have conducted these attacks without at least informing the United States.