Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Bob Mayberry
On April 11, 2021, an explosion at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site destroyed the power supply to its underground uranium processing centrifuges. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, called the attack an act of “nuclear terrorism,” and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the bombing as a “war crime.” Iran said there were no fatalities.
The New York Times reported that “American and Israeli intelligence officials said there had been an Israeli role.” The morning of the bombing, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
Israel, which has between 80 and 400 nuclear weapons and has never joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, neither confirmed nor denied involvement in the attack. Iran has no nuclear weapons and ratified the NPT in 1970.
Prior to the April attack, Iran began using new advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium-235 up to 20 percent. Enriched uranium is produced by feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges that separate the uranium-235, the most suitable isotope for nuclear fission. Uranium enriched to 90% or more can be used to make nuclear weapons, the BBC noted. Shortly after the attack, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would begin enriching uranium to 60%. Although Rouhani repeated that Iran’s nuclear activities were “exclusively peaceful,” France, Germany and the UK all expressed “grave concern” since there is no civilian atomic reactor using uranium enriched to 60%. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki described Iran’s decision — not the bombing of a uranium processing complex — as “provocative.”
On April 29, Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said, “Israel will not allow Iran to attain nuclear arms.… Our planes reach everywhere in the Middle East, and certainly Iran.” Meanwhile, White House officials met with Israeli delegates and agreed only on the “significant threat” posed by Iran. The Israeli ambassador to the US announced that the Biden administration would consult with Israel about any renewal of the anti-nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed to in 2015 between Iran, China, France, Russia, the UK, the US and Germany — together with the European Union. What Israel’s act of war provokes from Iran remains to be seen.
— Reuters, “Our warplanes can reach Iran, Israeli minister warns amid nuclear talks,” April 29; Reuters, “Iran to begin 60% uranium enrichment after nuclear site incident,” April 13; Associated Press, “Iran blames Israel for sabotage at Natanz nuclear site,” April 12; and New York Times, “Blackout Hits Iran Nuclear Site in What Appears to Be Israeli Sabotage,” April 11, 2021