Iran on 11 April 2021 described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility as an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, stopped short of directly blaming anyone for the incident. Details remained few about what happened at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding the site.
Israeli public radio cited intelligence sources as saying that Israel’s Mossad spy agency carried out a cyber-attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. Kan Radio’s report, which cited unnamed sources, said the attack on Natanz was “an Israeli cyber-attack in which the Mossad was involved… [and] the damage to the Iranian facility is greater than reported” by Tehran.Many Israeli media outlets offered the same assessment that a cyberattack darkened Natanz and damaged a facility that is home to sensitive centrifuges. While the reports offered no sourcing for the evaluation, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.
If Israel caused the blackout, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. It also complicates efforts by the US, Israel’s main security partner, to re-enter the atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so it can’t pursue a nuclear weapon. As news of the blackout emerged, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin landed Sunday in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said 10 April 2021 his country had launched a new generation of centrifuges that are used for uranium enrichment. Rouhani's statement came at an event attended by engineers involved in nuclear development. He said Iran had started operating new high-performance centrifuges at a nuclear facility in Natanz. He added that Iran would start technical tests of another type of centrifuge. He also said Iran would not let anyone in the world say its nuclear development is unlawful. Indirect talks between the United States and Iran, brokered by the European Union and other relevant countries, started in April. The administration of US President Joe Biden hoped to rejoin the nuclear deal which his predecessor Donald Trump withdrew from. Iran was demanding all sanctions that were re-imposed by the Trump administration be lifted, but the United States refused. Iran was believed to be putting pressure on the United States by showing its determination to step up the country's nuclear development activity.
The cancellation of the nuclear deal gave Iran the opportunity to enrich uranium at its factories in Natanz and Fordo, Tasnim News Agency reported 21 September 2018, citing representative of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Behrouz Kamalundi. "Now there are about six thousand centrifuges in Natanz. At the Fordo plant, enrichment is not being carried out, but in the event of Iran's withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the relevant decision of the management, we will again launch the uranium-processing plant at Fordo," he said. However, he stressed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered compliance with the terms of the JCPOA.
During a press conference by the representative office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran held in Washington, DC in mid-August 2002, the existence of a secret nuclear facility at Natanz was revealed. Israeli military intelligence has also referred to the site as "Kashan."
Natanz is located between Isfahan and Kashan in central Iran. The facility is reportedly 100 miles north of Esfahan, and is located in old Kashan-Natanz, near a village called Deh-Zireh, itself located about 25 miles southeast of Kashan, and falls under the jurisdiction of the Governor's Office of Kashan.
Officially a project aimed at the eradication of deserts, construction on the facility was said to have begun in 2000 and was being carried out by the Jahad-e Towse'eh and Towese'eh-Sakhteman construction companies. As of mid-2002, construction was not due to be completed until 2003, at which point, installation of the technical facilities would begin.
According to the NCRI, as of August 2002, the project had cost 95 billion toumans. Funding had been provided by the Supreme National Security Council and was outside of the supervisory purview of the Budget and Planning Organization. A front company had specifically been created for project. Named Kala-Electric, whose headquarters were located in Tehran, it met all requirements for the project's facilities and equipment and was run by Davood Aqajani, who was also the managing director for the Natanz heavy water project. Officials from the company reportedly made a number of trips to both China and India in 2001. The head of Atomic Enery Agency of Iran, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, reportedly pays visits to the site every months in order to oversee progress on the facility.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) on 12 December 2002 released an issue brief expressing concern that Iran was trying to develop "the capability to make separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the two main nuclear explosive materials." ISIS acquired satellite imagery of a site in Natanz, about 40 kilometers southeast of Kashan, which could have been a gas-centrifuge facility for uranium enrichment.
Iran strongly rejected the allegations and reiterated that the two plants were intended to generate electricity. "In the next 20 years, Iran has to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity by nuclear plants and the launch of these two centers are aimed at producing necessary fuel for these plants," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said.
Tehran later invited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to travel to Iran to inspect both facilities, an offer which has been accepted. "We have been in contacts with the IAEA over these two centers and we will officially invite them for inspections since the agency must inspect them and carry out their necessary planning and supervision before the centers are put into operation," Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said.
On 10 February 2003 Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO), said that Iran had started an ambitious nuclear energy program and was poised to begin processing uranium. He said that the uranium ore processing plant should come on line soon in the central city of Isfahan and preliminary work had begun on a uranium enrichment plant. Aqazadeh said the first steps had been taken to build an enrichment plant, "but we still have a long way to go to have this plant come onstream." Aqazadeh said the enrichment plant would be built in Kashan (at Natanz) in central Iran. The fuel would come from another facility in Isfahan, where a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) was close to inauguration.
The IAEA's inspectors visited Iran on 21 February 2003 to look at nuclear facilities under construction there. "We will be looking at facilities not even completed yet that are not formally under safeguards," as chief IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky put it. The visit was the "first step in a process of many visits to understand the architecture of the place and to design the most effective monitoring regime for that facility." American officials believed new nuclear facilities in Iran could be used to make nuclear weapons.
IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei visited the site on 21 February 2003, in the first visit by the UN chartered IAEA. During this visit, the Director General was informed by Iran of its uranium enrichment plant (PFEP) nearing completion of construction, and a large commercial-scale fuel enrichment plant (FEP) also under construction.
It was reported on 26 August 2003, that the IAEA had found particles of highly enriched uranium in environmental samples taken at Natanz. These findings were released in a report whose distribution was initially restricted to the organization's 35-nation Board of Governors.
During the discussions, which took place in August 2004, Iran repeated that, although the design drawings of a P-2 centrifuge had been acquired in 1995, no work on P-2 centrifuges was carried out until early 2002 when, according to Iran, the IAEO management decided that "work on a modified P-2 machine based on a sub-critical rotor design would not hurt," and, in March 2002, a contract to study the mechanical properties of the P-2 centrifuge was signed with a small private company. Iran stated that no feasibility or other preliminary studies or experiments were conducted by Iran during the period between 1995 and 2002.
Iranian officials also stated that, in spite of frequent contacts between 1995 and 1999 on P-1 centrifuge issues with the intermediaries (who, according to Iran, had provided both the P-1 and P-2 drawings), the topic of P-2 centrifuges was not addressed at all in those meetings nor in the course of making any other foreign contacts. Iran attributed this to the fact that a decision had been made to concentrate on the P-1 centrifuge enrichment program, and that, in addition, the IAEO was undergoing senior management and organizational changes during that period of time.
On 9 April 2007, in a speech at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran has now developed the capability to produce enriched uranium which is needed to make nuclear fuel. He claimed that Iran had begun production of enriched uranium using 3,000 centrifuges. At the gathering he said, "As of today, Iran is among the countries which produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale."
A fire and an explosion struck a building above Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility early on 25 June 2020. Natanz governor Ramazanali Ferdowsi said a “fire” had struck the site, according to a report by the semiofficial Tasnim news agency. Authorities offered no cause for the blaze, though Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency published a commentary addressing the possibility of sabotage by enemy nations such as Israel and the US following other recent explosions in the country. Data collected by a US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite suggested the fire broke out around 2 AM local time in the northwest corner of the Natanz compound. Flames from the blaze were bright enough to be detected by the satellite from space.
The site of the fire corresponds to a newly opened centrifuge production facility, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. He said he relied on satellite images and a state TV program on the facility to locate the building, which sits in Natanz’s northwest corner. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security similarly said the fire struck the production facility. His institute previously wrote a report on the new plant, identifying it from satellite pictures while it was under construction and later built.
The fire the Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage that could slow the development of advanced centrifuges, an Iranian nuclear official said on 05 July 2020. No one was hurt in the mysterious blaze at the site, said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation. Iran's top security body said on 03 July 2020 the cause of the fire at the facility had been determined and would be announced later, however, specific details have yet to be released.
Some Iranian officials reportedly said it may have been caused by cyber-sabotage and one warned Tehran would retaliate against any country carrying out such attacks. "The incident could slow down the development and production of advanced centrifuges in the medium term," Kamalvandi was quoted as saying by Iran's state news agency IRNA. "Iran will replace the damaged building with a bigger one that has more advanced equipment. The incident has caused significant damage, but there were no casualties."
Nearly three-quarters of Iran’s main centrifuge assembly hall was destroyed by the recent explosion there, Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) president David Albright told The Jerusalem Post 09 Jul 2020. Albright indicated that this latest revelation is based on two new satellite overviews showing a much fuller picture than footage that was released last weekend, indicating that the vast majority of the centrifuge assembly hall was wiped out. Albright estimated that the facility would take at least a year to rebuild, but likely longer since it took six years, from 2012-2018, to build it and become operational the first time.
According to the report by ISIS, “High-resolution commercial satellite imagery... shows that the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center (ICAC) at the Natanz Enrichment Site has suffered significant, extensive, and likely irreparable damage to its main assembly hall section.” Further, the report says, “This new facility, inaugurated in 2018, was critical to the mass production of advanced centrifuges, in particular the assembly of rotor assemblies, the rapidly spinning part of the centrifuge and its most crucial component.”
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