Since late June a series of explosions and fires in Iran have gained attention from around the world. The explosions occurred at an X-ray lab in Tehran, a missile base at Parchin, a power plant in Ahvaz, an area that is home to Iran’s Arab minority, and most recently, the enrichment facility at Natanz. At first glance it is readily apparent that at least two of the above-mentioned sites are components of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Natanz alone has garnered headlines in the past when the US-Israel Stuxnet computer virus caused severed damage to the centrifuge program going on there. So, given that a major explosion took place at Natanz last week, and the facility is still the center of Iran’s centrifuge efforts it would be fair to assume that Iran’s nuclear program is once again in someone’s crosshairs.
2020 has not been kind to Iran thus far. The year started with the death of IRGC major general Qasem Soleimani at the hands of a US drone. Iran’s retaliatory missile strike against an airbase in Iraq being used by US troops was ineffective, and inadvertently led to the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by an Iranian air defense unit. US economic sanctions continue to have a detrimental effect. Then there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Iran has had considerable difficulty bringing under control. Now on top of all that, a new effort is likely underway to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Even more significant than determining who could be responsible is asking why it is even necessary. The sensible answer is that Iran is once again making progress in centrifuge production, a step that more than one nation-state has deemed to be unacceptable. The Iranian government has been vociferous in declaring it will soon no longer observe the JCOPA in light of the US removing itself from the deal, and Europe’s inability to garner sanction relief on behalf of Iran from the Trump administration. The US could conceivably be responsible for the recent explosions and fires, seeking to contain Iran’s centrifuge progress. Then there is Israel, which has been conducting a low-key effort against Iranian targets in Syria for months now. The Israeli position on the Iranian nuclear program is well known, and it is well inside the realm of possibility for Tel Aviv to be behind the explosion at Natanz at least.
Iranian leadership is under growing pressure to respond after Natanz. The hardliner majority in the nation’s parliament is becoming loud with demands, however, for the moment the regime seems content to invoke the JCPOA dispute mechanism and play the waiting game until US elections in November. It goes without saying that Tehran would prefer to contend with a Biden administration in the coming years rather than continuing to deal with the more hawkish Trump administration. Therefore, Iran will likely be careful not to spark an incident, or crisis that President Trump can use to his advantage on the campaign trail this fall.