Iran said the individual responsible for an electrical blackout in one of the underground uranium enrichment plant’s production halls has been found. “Necessary measures are being taken to apprehend this individual,” Iranian state media said, without providing further information.
The incident happened during diplomatic attempts by Iran and the United States to resurrect Tehran’s 2015 nuclear pact with major powers, which Israel has strongly criticised since it was scrapped three years earlier by former US President Donald Trump.
Iran and the world powers held “constructive” talks last week to revive the pact, which has unravelled as Iran has exceeded its cap on critical uranium enrichment after Trump reimposed harsh sanctions on Tehran.
The event was identified as an act of “nuclear terrorism” by Iranian authorities a day earlier, and Tehran claimed the right to take action against the perpetrators.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif explicitly blamed Israel. “The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions… We will not fall into their trap…We will not allow this act of sabotage to affect the nuclear talks,” Zarif was quoted by state TV as saying.
“But we will take our revenge against the Zionists.”
According to unidentified Israeli intelligence sources, the country’s Mossad secret service carried out a fruitful espionage mission at the underground Natanz complex, possibly delaying enrichment work there by months.
Israel, whose presence Iran denies, has made no official comment on the incident. The White House stated that the US was not involved in the attack and declined to comment on reports about the incident’s origin.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Zarif said those involved “committed a grave war crime” and “any power with knowledge of, or acquiescence in, this act must also be held accountable as an accomplice to this war crime.”
Iranian nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi said an emergency power system had been activated at Natanz to offset the outage. “Enrichment of uranium has not stopped at the site.”
A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the facility was hit by an explosion.
“It is a power grid issue. The explosion was not powerful enough to destroy everything but the ceiling collapsed in one of the control rooms,” Kamalvandi told state TV.
The incident occurred a day after Tehran, which has maintained that the enrichment process would provide only peaceful nuclear energy rather than nuclear warheads, unveiled new advanced centrifuge machines at Natanz.
According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, all of the centrifuges that went out of circuit at the Natanz site were of the IR-1 kind, referring to Iran’s first generation of enrichment machines, which are more susceptible to outages.
“Our nuclear experts are assessing the damage but I can assure you that Iran will replace damaged uranium enrichment centrifuges in Natanz with advanced ones.”
Modern centrifuges will process uranium to higher fissile purity at a much quicker pace, assisting in the accumulation of a stockpile that might shorten Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, if it chooses to build them, than the IR-1, which still predominates in Natanz’s development halls.
The 2015 agreement only permits Iran to enrich with up to 5,060 IR-1 machines in a plant planned for 50,000, but it has already started enriching at Natanz with hundreds of sophisticated centrifuges, including the IR-2m.
Despite heavy Israeli resistance, US President Joe Biden’s administration is committed to rejoining the agreement if Iran returns to full compliance with nuclear fuel supply constraints.
Asked by reporters about the Natanz outage, a German Foreign Ministry spokesman, warned that such incidents could adversely affect the nuclear negotiations.
Khatibzadeh reported that nuclear talks would resume in Vienna on Wednesday. Delegates said on Friday that diplomatic progress had been made. Iran insists that all US sanctions crippling its oil-based economy be scrapped before it ceases speeding enrichment and restores process caps.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Iran has never abandoned its attempts to build nuclear weapons and that Israel would never allow Tehran to do so. The Iranian enrichment drive is seen as an imminent threat by Israel.
There have been sporadic episodes of sabotage and outages at Iranian nuclear installations over more than a decade, for which Tehran has blamed Israel, including a fire last July that broke out at Iran’s Natanz site.
The Stuxnet computer virus, commonly thought to have been created by the US and Israel, was found in 2010 after it was used to target Natanz, triggering destructive breakdowns of centrifuge cascades that refine uranium.
Iran also suspected Israel of being responsible for the November ambush killing outside Tehran of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was thought by Western intelligence agencies to be the mastermind of an Iranian clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Israel has not acknowledged or refuted any role in his murder.