A series of explosions in Iran including several at problematic nuclear sites has left the regime giving conflicting answers to difficult questions. It also graphically illustrates that even the most secure Iranian facilities are open to foreign attacks.
On June 25, a huge explosion rocked Parchin military base about 20 miles southeast of the capital Tehran. Defense ministry spokesman Davoud Abdi told state TV the blast happened at a gas storage facility in a “public area” of Parchin rather than the military base.
It was later revealed that the explosion was the result of a cyberattack, possibly carried out by Israel.
In July 2015, there were claims based on satellite imagery that there was activity in the Parchin military complex associated with nuclear weapons. UN and international inspectors were denied access to the site and Iran denied the claims saying the satellite photos were fabricated.
In 2014, the New York Times reported that a large explosion at the site was a case of sabotage by foreign intelligence agencies. In 2018, Israeli intelligence captured an archive in Tehran with proving the Parchin site was a key part of Iran’s ongoing nuclear weapons research and development program. This archive contained documentary evidence that in 2003 Iran was operating a nuclear weapons program, codenamed the AMAD Plan, which aimed to build five nuclear weapons and prepare an underground nuclear test site. Parchin was a key part of that program, used for a specialized, difficult to develop, neutron initiator to start the chain reaction in a nuclear explosion. Some of the equipment is believed to be held ready for later use, potentially when Iran’s 2015 nuclear accord with the six world powers expires.
At about the same time as the explosion at the Parchin facility, a large explosion at the local power station left half of the city of Tehran without electricity.
But that was not the end of Iran’s woes. Four days later, an explosion from a gas leak in the Sina Athar Medical Center in northern Tehran killed 19 people. Video posted online appeared to show more than one explosion.
On Thursday, a fire and explosion damaged a centrifuge production plant above Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility at around 2:00 AM local time. Initially, Iranian officials claimed the destruction was inconsequential, damaging an “industrial shed.” At the same time, the government claimed the “industrial shed” was the target of sabotage by enemy nations such as Israel and the US. An unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence official later told the NY Times that damage to the facility was caused by an explosive device placed inside the building.
Natanz nuclear facility is generally recognized as Iran’s central facility for uranium enrichment with over 19,000 gas centrifuges currently operational and nearly half of them being fed with uranium hexafluoride. Between 2007–2010 Natanz nuclear power plant was hit by a sophisticated cyberattack that was carried out by German, French, British, American, Dutch and Israeli intelligence organizations. The attack used a Stuxnet worm which hampered the operation of the plant’s centrifuges and caused damage to them over time.
Disaster hit Iran yet again on Saturday as an explosion ripped through the Zargan power plant in the Iranian city of Ahvaz. Iran’s IRNA news agency later reported that the blaze was ignited when a transformer exploded.
A few hours later on Saturday, IRNA said a chlorine gas leak at a Karun petrochemical center in the city of Mahshahr in southeast Iran. 70 workers.were reported hospitalized in the incident.
Some of the mystery behind the explosions was alleviated in an interview on Sunday with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz. When Israel Army Radio asked whether Israel had anything to do with the spate of explosions in Iran, Gantz answered enigmatically, “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us.”
“All those systems are complex, they have very high safety constraints and I’m not sure they always know how to maintain them,” Gantz
Three Iranian officials who spoke to Reuters said they thought cyber sabotage had been involved at Natanz, but offered no evidence. Two said Israel could have been behind it.
An article by Iran’s state news agency IRNA addressed what it called the possibility of sabotage by enemies such as Israel and the United States, although it stopped short of accusing either directly.
Cyberwarfare between Israel and Iran has been carried out for some time with terrifying implications. An unprecedented Iranian cyberattack targeted six facilities in Israel’s water infrastructure on April 24-25 nearly dumped lethal levels of chemicals into the Israeli civilian water system. Fortunately, the attack impacted some systems but did not cause any disruption in the water supply or waste management. The computer system was breached but the cyberattack was blocked before any damage could be done.
Cyber attacks typically target databases or websites. But this attack was the first of its type, attempting to attack a civilian population.
Israel responded in kind, targeting Iran’s largest port, paralyzing the main economic ingress for several days. All navigation systems of the ships were severely disrupted and everything had to be stopped to avoid collisions between incoming and outgoing vessels.