The things that go bump in Iran’s nights

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.

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One Comment on “The things that go bump in Iran’s nights”

  1. Kavan Says:

    I am doubtful about the whole drama, I tried to search the internet to find a technical concept or term that. could correspond to what mullahs might be doing.
    I came up with a no-brainer word:Deception
    Yes Deception is actually a military term. Wikipedia defines it as follows:
    Deception is the construction of a false reality for the adversary through intentionally “leaked” false information, false stories implanted in the media, dummy or decoy structures or military formations, or numerous other measure.

    What if the building was just a dummy or decoy? What if the actual enrichment is underway deep in the ground somewhere in the vast Iranian desert!!!

    Soviets called it Maskirovka and Mullahs have a broad name for it: Taqia!!


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