Archive for April 21, 2021

Iran rattled as Israel repeatedly strikes key targets

April 21, 2021

Ha ha ha, suckers.

Long article, but it’s full of good news, mentions many “accidents” (which I have bolded).

Hadn’t heard about the a few of these “accidents,” such as the first one mentioned which sounds like typical Mossad style.

The killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whose funeral on November 30 is pictured, was only one of a string of attacks aimed at the heart of Iran’s nuclear program.

Beirut: In less than nine months, an assassin on a motorbike fatally shot an al-Qaeda commander given refuge in Tehran, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist was machine-gunned down on a country road, and two separate, mysterious explosions rocked a key Iranian nuclear facility in the desert, striking the heart of the country’s efforts to enrich uranium.

The steady drumbeat of attacks, which intelligence officials said were carried out by Israel, highlighted the seeming ease with which Israeli intelligence was able to reach deep inside its neighbour’s borders and repeatedly strike its most heavily guarded targets, often with the help of turncoats.

The attacks, the latest wave in more than two decades of sabotage and assassinations, have exposed embarrassing security lapses and left Iran’s leaders looking over their shoulders as they pursue negotiations with the Biden administration aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement.

The recriminations have been caustic.

The head of parliament’s strategic centre said Iran had turned into a “haven for spies.” The former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard called for an overhaul of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus. Lawmakers have demanded the resignation of top security and intelligence officials.

Most alarming for Iran, Iranian officials and analysts said, was that the attacks revealed that Israel had an effective network of collaborators inside Iran and that Iranian intelligence services had failed to find the moles.

“That the Israelis are effectively able to hit Iran inside in such a brazen way is hugely embarrassing and demonstrates a weakness that I think plays poorly inside Iran,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.

The attacks have also cast a cloud of paranoia over a country that now sees foreign plots in every mishap.

Over the weekend, Iranian state television flashed a photograph of a man said to be Reza Karimi, 43, and accused him of being the “perpetrator of sabotage” in an explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant last month. But it was unclear who he was, whether he had acted alone and if that was even his real name. In any case, he had fled the country before the blast, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said.

On Monday, after Iranian state news media reported that Brigadier General Mohammad Hosseinzadeh Hejazi, the deputy commander of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guard, had died of heart disease, there were immediate suspicions of foul play.

Hejazi had long been a target of Israeli espionage, and the son of another prominent Quds Force commander insisted on Twitter that Hejazi’s death was “not cardiac-related”.

A Revolutionary Guard spokesman failed to clear the air with a statement saying the general had died of the combined effects of “extremely difficult assignments,” a recent COVID-19 infection and exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

The general would have been the third high-ranking Iranian military official to be assassinated in the last 15 months. The United States killed General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, in January 2020. Israel assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and a brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guard, in November.

Even if Hejazi died of natural causes, the cumulative loss of three top generals was a significant blow.

The attacks represent an uptick in a long-running campaign by the intelligence services of Israel and the United States to subvert what they consider to be Iran’s threatening activities.

Chief among them are a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful, Iran’s investment in proxy militias across the Arab world, and its development of precision-guided missiles for Hezbollah, the militant movement in Lebanon.

An Israeli military intelligence document in 2019 said that Hejazi was a leading figure in the last two, as the commander of the Lebanese corps of the Quds Force and the leader of the guided missile project. Revolutionary Guard spokesman Ramezan Sharif said that Israel wanted to assassinate Hejazi.

Israel has been working to derail Iran’s nuclear program, which it considers a mortal threat, since it began. Israel is believed to have started assassinating key figures in the program in 2007, when a nuclear scientist at a uranium plant in Isfahan died in a mysterious gas leak.

In the years since, six other scientists and military officials have been assassinated. A seventh was wounded.

Another top Quds Force commander, Rostam Ghasemi, said recently that he had narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt during a visit to Lebanon in March.

But assassination is just one tool in a campaign that operates on multiple levels and fronts.

In 2018, Israel carried out a daring night-time raid to steal 450 kilograms of secret nuclear program archives from a warehouse in Tehran.

Israel has also reached around the world, tracking down equipment in other countries that is bound for Iran, to destroy it, conceal transponders in its packaging or install explosive devices to be detonated after the gear has been installed inside of Iran, according to a former high-ranking US intelligence official.

A former Israeli intelligence operative said that to compromise such equipment, she and another officer would drive by the factory and stage a crisis, such as a car accident or a heart attack, and the woman would appeal to the guards for help. That would get her enough access to the facility to identify its security system so that another team could break in and disable it, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to discuss covert operations.

In an interview on Iranian state television last week, Iran’s former nuclear chief revealed the origins of an explosion in the Natanz nuclear plant in July. The explosives had been sealed inside a heavy desk that had been placed in the plant months earlier, said Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the former chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.

The explosion ripped through a factory producing a new generation of centrifuges, setting back Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by months, officials said.

Alireza Zakani, head of parliament’s research centre, said Tuesday that in another case machinery from a nuclear site had been sent abroad for repair and was returned to Iran with 300 pounds of explosives packed inside it.

Little is known about the more recent explosion at Natanz this month except that it destroyed the plant’s independent power system, which in turn destroyed thousands of centrifuges.

It would have been difficult for Israel to carry out these operations without inside help from Iranians, and that may be what rankles Iran most.

Security officials in Iran have prosecuted several Iranian citizens over the past decade, charging them with complicity in Israeli sabotage and assassination operations. The penalty is execution.

But the infiltrations have also sullied the reputation of the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard, which is responsible for guarding nuclear sites and scientists.

A former Guard commander demanded a “cleansing” of the intelligence service, and Iran’s vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said that the unit responsible for security at Natanz should be “be held accountable for its failures”.

The deputy head of parliament, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, told the Iranian news media on Monday that it was no longer enough to blame Israel and the United States for such attacks. Iran needed to clean its own house.

As a publication affiliated with the Guard, Mashregh News, put it last week: “Why does the security of the nuclear facility act so irresponsibly that it gets hit twice from the same hole?”

But the Revolutionary Guard answers only to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and so far there has been no sign of a top-down reshuffling.

After each attack, Iran has struggled to respond, sometimes claiming to have identified those responsible only after they had left the country or saying that they remained at large. Iranian officials also insist that they have foiled other attacks.

Calls for retaliation grow louder after each attack. Conservatives have accused the government of President Hassan Rouhani of weakness or of subjugating the country’s security to the nuclear talks in hopes they will lead to relief from US sanctions.

Indeed, Iranian officials shifted to what they called “strategic patience” in the last year of the Trump administration, calculating that Israel sought to goad them into an open conflict that would eliminate the possibility of negotiations with a new Democratic administration.

Both Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have said they would not allow the attacks to derail the negotiations because lifting sanctions was the priority.

It is also possible that Iran has tried to retaliate but failed.

Iran was blamed for a bomb that exploded near Israel’s Embassy in New Delhi in January, and 15 militants linked to Iran were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.

But any overt retaliation risks an overwhelming Israeli response.

“They are not in a hurry to start a war,” said Talal Atrissi, a political science professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut. “Retaliation means war.”

Conversely, the timing of Israel’s latest attack on Natanz suggested that Israel sought if not to derail the talks, to at least weaken Iran’s bargaining power. Israel opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and opposes its resurrection.

The United States, seeking to negotiate with Iran in Vienna, said it was not involved in the attack but has not publicly criticised it either.

And if the repeated Israeli attacks had the effect of fomenting a national paranoia, an intelligence official said, that was a side benefit for Israel. The additional steps Iran has taken to scan buildings for surveillance devices and plumb employees’ backgrounds to root out potential spies has slowed down the enrichment work, the official said.

The conventional wisdom is that neither side wants full-scale war and is counting on the other not to escalate. But at the same time, the covert, region-wide shadow war between Israel and Iran has intensified with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria and tit for tat attacks on ships.

But as Iran faces a struggling economy, rampant COVID-19 infections and other problems of poor governance, the pressure is on to reach a new agreement soon to remove economic sanctions, said Vakil of Chatham House.

“These low-level, gray zone attacks reveal that the Islamic Republic urgently needs to get the JCPOA back into a box” to free up resources to address its other problems, she said, referring to the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The New York Times

Top Iran official: Power fully restored at Natanz, enrichment renewed

April 21, 2021

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of country’s atomic agency, claims enrichment at key nuclear site never stopped following blast blamed on Israel

By TOI STAFF20 April 2021, 10:42 pm  

File: The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at the opening of the general conference of the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, September 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at the opening of the general conference of the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, September 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Power has been restored in Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility and uranium enrichment activities there have been renewed after a blast at the site earlier this month, the head of the country’s atomic agency said Tuesday.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was cited by the official IRNA news agency as saying that “the cables damaged in the accident were speedily replaced and… the main power supply to the Natanz enrichment facility [is] now connected to the grid.”

Salehi told lawmakers during a parliamentary committee meeting that “thanks to the timely measures taken, enrichment in Natanz never stopped, even when the main power cable was cut,” according to the report.

He also reportedly said that Iran’s enemies, among them Israel, have repeatedly attempted to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, but claimed all the plots were foiled.

Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the April 11 attack at Natanz.

The report did not include any images of the enrichment activities that Salehi said had resumed.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, is shown new centrifuges and listens to head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, while visiting an exhibition of Iran’s new nuclear achievements in Tehran, Iran, April 10, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AFP)

His comments came as a New York Times report said Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at Natanz has slowed down due to increased security measures implemented following the recent blast.

The explosion is said to have caused considerable damage to the Natanz plant, including its various uranium-enriching centrifuges.

In response to the attack, Iran said it began enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60 percent purity at the site — its highest level ever, and a short step from weapons-grade. The UN atomic agency confirmed the enrichment, saying it was being done in an above-ground facility at Natanz.

Despite the reported damage, Iranian state TV aired footage earlier this week from what it said were regular operations at Natanz. The spot included a short interview with an unnamed worker at the site who said that the staff was working around the clock to resume uranium enrichment.

Israeli and American media have reported that a 150-kilogram bomb took out Natanz’s main and backup power supplies and caused damage setting back the enrichment process by months.

In this image made from April 17, 2021 video released by the Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting, IRIB, state-run TV, various centrifuge machines line a hall at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility, Iran. (IRIB via AP, File)

A senior Iranian official said last Tuesday that the blast destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Alireza Zakani, the hardline head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

The blast was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding aboveground workshops and underground enrichment halls, but Iranian officials later began calling it an attack.

Last Monday, an Iranian official acknowledged that the blast took out the plant’s main electrical power system and its backup. “From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, told Iranian state television.

“They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. The official also noted that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup


A passport-style photo published by Iranian state television shows Reza Karimi, 43, whom Tehran says was behind the sabotage at Natanz on April 11 that it has blamed on Israel (video screenshot)

On Saturday, Iran state television named 43-year-old Reza Karimi as a suspect in last week’s attack, saying he had since fled the country. The report showed a passport-style photograph of a man it identified as Karimi, saying he was born in the nearby city of Kashan, Iran.

The Iranian foreign ministry accused Israel of an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed revenge.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement, but public radio reports said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency, citing unnamed intelligence sources. The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, last week indirectly accused Israel of attempting to scuttle talks underway in Vienna aimed at reviving a landmark nuclear agreement.

The talks are focused on bringing the US back into the accord after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, and to bring Iran back into compliance with key nuclear commitments it suspended in response to the sanctions.

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