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Israel’s suspected attack on an Iranian nuclear site complicates US-Iran talks

Iran has been ramping up its uranium enrichment. The suspected Israeli cyberattack on the Natanz nuclear site might be retaliation for that.

Unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and Iranian technicians at the Natanz nuclear site in Iran in 2014.
Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP/Getty Images

A mysterious power outage occurred at one of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities on Sunday in what reports indicate was likely an act of cyber-sabotage carried out by Israel — and it could have serious ramifications for the future of the floundering 2015 nuclear deal.

The New York Times, citing intelligence sources, reports that what seems to have been a “deliberately planned explosion” at the Natanz nuclear site on Sunday “completely destroyed” the power system for centrifuges that enrich uranium — a material that, if enriched to high levels, can be used to make a nuclear bomb. That caused a blackout at the facility, and it may take over nine months to restart production.

If that timeline proves correct, it’d be quite the blow to Tehran’s nuclear advancement.

The timing of the incident is particularly striking, as it comes right as the United States, Iran, and the other parties to the 2015 nuclear agreement are meeting in Vienna to discuss how the US and Iran can come back into compliance with the terms of the deal.

Under that original agreement, Iran agreed to significantly curb its nuclear program — including its uranium enrichment efforts — in exchange for the removal of some of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US.

But after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed those sanctions, Iran once again began to enrich uranium above the levels set by the deal.

Just last week, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesperson, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said his country had produced 55 kilograms (roughly 121 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent, up from about 17 kilograms in January.

Uranium enriched to 20 percent is considered “highly enriched,” but it’s a far cry from the 90 percent enrichment needed to make nuclear material for a bomb. Iran claimed, then, that it moved slightly closer — but still not particularly close — to actually having enough material to make a nuclear weapon.

Still, the announcement was nevertheless provocative — which most experts say is exactly the point. The general belief is that Iran is making these advancements to pressure the US into returning to the agreement and once again lifting the sanctions that have hamstrung Iran’s economy.

But it seems Iran’s announcement may have angered another nation enough to take action to try to curb Tehran’s nuclear progress: Israel.

Why Israel is thought to be behind the blackout

The Jerusalem Post and Israeli public broadcaster Kan report that the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, launched a cyberattack that sparked the explosion that shut down multiple parts of the Natanz facility. Top Iranian officials appear to agree.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency that “the Zionists” — Iran’s term for Israel — “want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.”

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters as he speaks on March 24 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

Multiple Iranian officials called the suspected strike “nuclear terrorism,” with one claiming the attack fit with other “crimes against humanity which the Israeli regime has been doing for many years now.”

It’s true that Israel has for years taken action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear work. Last summer alone, explosions occurred at an Iranian missile-production complex, an aluminum plant, and — just like this past weekend — the Natanz nuclear site. The consensus at the time was that Israel was responsible for each of those strikes.

And last November, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was killed in an ambush by gunmen 40 miles outside of Tehran. That came just weeks after an international monitoring agency confirmed that the country had taken new steps to blow past restrictions outlined in the nuclear deal. Once again, the belief within the intelligence and expert communities was that Israel had orchestrated the assassination.

It’s therefore entirely possible that Jerusalem was behind the latest Natanz incident.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, told the Associated Press on Sunday. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”

Israel’s government rarely confirms or denies its operations publicly, partly to avoid retaliation and to maintain some semblance of mystery — and deniability.

But Israel’s top military officer, Aviv Kochavi, seemed to hint at his nation’s involvement just a few hours after Iranian officials confirmed the attack. Israel’s “operations throughout the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemies,” he said on Sunday in Jerusalem. “They are watching us, seeing the capabilities and carefully considering their steps.”

It’s unclear if the Biden administration got a heads-up before the strike, though many believe the US was probably informed, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Israel at the time of the incident. The Biden administration firmly denies any foreknowledge or participation, though. “The US was not involved in any manner,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Either way, two big questions arise from this episode. The first is whether the Natanz attack might lead to a greater confrontation between Israel and Iran. Experts I spoke to don’t really think so, as Jerusalem has carried out many of these strikes without a serious overt response from Tehran.

They “fit a pattern of how the Israelis have tried to set back Iran’s program in the past. In that sense, this is business as usual,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a fellow at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, DC.

The second is if the attack might derail the sensitive negotiations between Iran and the United States to revive the nuclear deal. And that, experts said, is certainly possible.

How the Natanz attack might impact Iran deal negotiations

The signatories of the 2015 nuclear pact — Iran, Russia, China, France, the UK, and Germany — as well as representatives from the European Union, met last week in Vienna to discuss how the US and Iran could get back into the agreement.

Tensions were already high, with neither Washington nor Tehran wanting to appear to be caving to the other. The optics mattered so much that the US delegation posted up at a hotel across the street from the hotel where the Iranians held their meetings, requiring European diplomats to shuttle back and forth.

Representatives of the European Union, Iran, and signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria on April 6.
EU Delegation in Vienna/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Even with those complications, the US and Iran struck a tiny bargain: They set up two working groups, which by diplomatic standards is considered progress.

The first one will examine how the US can return to compliance with the deal, namely by lifting the sanctions the Trump administration put back on Iran after the US withdrew. The second working group will explore how Iran can return to compliance, requiring it to once again restrict its nuclear program.

More talks are planned in Vienna this week, and experts say the specter of the Natanz explosion will haunt the talks — though they’re divided on just what impact it will have.

Some say it’ll complicate negotiations.

“The attack at Natanz will undoubtably complicate talks to restore the nuclear deal. The window may not close completely, but Iran will likely harden its position about the sequencing of actions for the US and Iran to return to compliance,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, which supports the US returning to the deal. “The nuclear agreement will not last if its benefits to Iran are continually undermined.”

Those making this argument say that Iran has less political space to agree to a deal with the US now, because doing so would be extra embarrassing after being attacked. As a result, any progress on this front will at best be delayed and at worst derailed indefinitely. “Iran doesn’t like to appear that it is negotiating from a weakened position or under pressure,” Eric Brewer, who worked on nuclear issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tweeted on Monday.

Others, though, say that delaying Iran’s uranium enrichment by nine months actually weakens Iran’s position in nuclear talks. If Tehran increased its enrichment to pressure the US to get back into the pact — essentially proving it would keep inching closer and closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon unless the US agreed to come back to the deal — then without the ability to enrich uranium as quickly, that pressure on Washington potentially decreases.

What’s more, Iran is used to Israeli attacks. It therefore won’t be shocked into changing its long-term goal of getting the sanctions relief it desperately needs.

All eyes will be on the negotiations in Vienna this week to see how Iran responds. What the Iranian negotiators choose to say and do will directly impact how quickly the US can get back into the Iran nuclear deal — or if it can get back in at all.