Israeli nuclear terrorism
Yassamine Mather looks at the ongoing low-intensity war and the latest attack on Natanz
On April 11, after weeks of Israeli attacks on Iranian ships (presumed to be attempts to incite retaliation, with the obvious aim of derailing talks between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the 5+1 nuclear powers), Israel resorted to what was described by Iranian authorities as “nuclear terrorism”, deliberately causing an explosion in Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site, which produced a temporary blackout.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said:
The action this morning against the Natanz enrichment site shows the defeat of those who oppose our country’s nuclear and political development and the significant gains of our nuclear industry ... The incident shows the failure of those who oppose Iran negotiating for sanctions relief.
The timing was significant: it was a day after Tehran started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at this facility, while claiming that they had been moved underground below mountains to keep them safe from possible air raids.
Of course, this is not the first Israeli attack and it will not be the last one. Last year a mysterious fire destroyed another section of the Natanz facility, used for the assembly of centrifuges - this one situated above ground. Then in November 2020 physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi - a senior official overseeing the country’s nuclear programme - was assassinated in broad daylight near Tehran. Iran first claimed the attack was conducted by gunmen and a bomb, but later the authorities changed their version of what had happened, saying an autonomous Israeli satellite-operated gun was involved. One Israeli TV station claimed that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, had smuggled a bomb weighing 1000kg bit by bit into Iran in order to assemble it there.
Irrespective of which version is true, clearly someone in the Iranian security forces had given Mossad detailed information about the movement of Fakhrizadeh on that fateful Friday. For Iranians this is the story of another well placed spy amongst diehard supporters of the Islamic Republic and elite factions of the Revolutionary Guards.
By April 12 the Islamic Republic was claiming it had identified the person responsible for disrupting the flow of power to Natanz in a sabotage operation. But it is difficult to take Iran’s claims seriously: clearly every section of the country’s security system, as well as the nuclear industry, has Israeli infiltrators - which is ironic, as the regime keeps accusing the Iranian working class, leftwing and climate-change activists of spying for foreign powers, including Israel. Yet the spies are invariably not amongst the opponents of the government it arrests, but amongst its own ‘loyal security’ forces.
As I write, there has been no official Israeli comment on the latest attack. However, as expected, unnamed Israeli intelligence officials claimed it as their country’s handy work. In the past Israel has relied on Mossad-organised cyber attacks, while an Israeli TV station claimed the fire was the result of exploding buried material (presumably nuclear waste) as part of a long-term plan! According to Ha’aretz, “senior Israeli sources” and “intelligence sources” have been rolling out the terms, “controlled escalation” and “phased escalation”, over the last few days. The attack came on the morning that the American defence secretary, Lloyd J Austin III, was visiting Israel.
Anonymous Israeli officials have described the operation as classified, claiming to have dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, which means it could take the best part of a year to restore Natanz’s production. Iran’s foreign ministry was telling the world the country had embarked on 60% uranium nuclear enrichment (a nuclear bomb requires 90%) following the sanctions imposed by Donald Trump. This is well above the level agreed in the 2015-16 nuclear deal with Iran, but, of course, whatever both sides say should be taken in the context of an ongoing propaganda war.
The Israeli aim is twofold: provoke an Iranian military response that can be used as an excuse for all-out war; and add leverage when it comes to the new talks undertaken by the Joe Biden administration to restore the nuclear agreement.
Speaking to Iranian TV, Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said: “The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress on the way to lift sanctions ... they have publicly said that they will not allow this. But we will take our revenge on the Zionists.”
We should not forget that skirmishes between Iran and Israel have been taking place for at least two and a half years. Several dozen Iranian oil tankers have been ‘mysteriously’ hit, causing an estimated cumulative damage of billions of dollars. Some would say Israel has succeeded in disrupting Iran’s shipping.
The most recent such attack took place on April 8, when an Iranian cargo ship - claimed by Israel to be “a base for the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards” and anchored for years in the Red Sea off Yemen - was targeted. Javad Zarif, confirming the attack on the MV Saviz cargo ship, branded Israel as the likely culprit. The attack came as Iran and world powers were preparing for talks in Vienna about the US potentially rejoining the nuclear deal.
Over the last few years Israel has invested considerably in media and social-media propaganda against the Islamic republic, as well as cyber attacks on the nuclear plants and assassinations carried out on Iranian soil. Meanwhile a number of Iranian exiled royalist singers, actors and musicians have travelled to Israel and been paraded on Persian-speaking media financed by Israel and Saudi Arabia as ‘friends of Israel’.
There have been dozens of attacks on Iranian ships in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea attributed to Israel. Some targeted what Israel claimed to be oil shipments from Iran to Syria; in other cases Israel claimed the ships attacked were part of Iran’s plans to smuggle weapons to its allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Iran has also retaliated. Two weeks ago, an Israeli TV channel reported that an Iranian missile had hit an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Arabian Sea, as it was making its way from Tanzania to India. In February, a ship owned by an Israeli firm, MV Helios Ray, was hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman. In Israel it was assumed this was an Iranian operation, but Iran denied involvement and Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for the foreign ministry in Tehran, said: “We strongly reject this accusation.”
According to The New York Times, Israel informed the United States that it was behind an attack last month on an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean, claiming this was in retaliation for an operation attributed to Iran against two ships partly owned by Israeli companies. Ha’aretz tells us: “In this respect and on this scale, the last several days are not a qualitative escalation, but an outing. This is no longer a shadow war or a ‘between the wars’ campaign. This is war.”
So what can we say about the arch-enemies involved in this “war”, culminating in this week’s events in Natanz?
First, Israel. The Zionist state remains ambiguous regarding its own nuclear weaponry, yet no-one in their right mind has any doubts that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. And its safety measures regarding its own plant are not that great, so if it decides on cyber attacks on other countries’ nuclear plants you cannot rule out the possibility of things disintegrating into a complete disaster, endangering millions of lives well beyond Iran’s borders.
Everyone should be concerned about this kind of irresponsible, ‘terrorist-style’ nuclear adventurism by Israel. What if the attack had gone wrong and instead of a shutdown it had caused a huge fire? Let us not forget that the disastrous failure to employ safety measures at the Israeli plant in Dimona was hushed up by Israeli authorities until they were taken to court.
According to Dr Dan Litai, a radiation safety engineer at the plant, giving testimony to a court hearing in 2011, “Workers at the Negev Nuclear Research Centre underwent superficial and inadequate radiation exposure tests”. He added the employees should be considered as the victims of work-related accidents after they were diagnosed with cancer. This was all part of a damages suit submitted by 44 employees at the Dimona-based reactor and the Soreq Nuclear Research Centre in the mid-1990s.
More recently, according to The Times of Israel,
A disaster at Israel’s reactor would be far less catastrophic than the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, but the core is being kept in service far longer than intended and, experts warn, there are safety concerns connected to Dimona - namely that its core is ageing, and will nevertheless continue to be used, as Israel is unlikely to get a new one - and these often go undiscussed in public due to the largely classified nature of the facility, which produces fissile material for nuclear weapons, according to foreign media reports.1
Given this record on nuclear safety, it is amazing how no-one in the west seems concerned about Israeli nuclear adventurism in Iran. Whichever Israeli version of events we accept, a country that cannot even guarantee the safety of its own nuclear employees is surely a risk to the region.
Then we have the Islamic Republic. Sanctions, as well as greed, cronyism and corruption, have destroyed its economy, while this week the fourth wave of Covid-19 is killing one Iranian every 16 minutes. Yet a regime that claims it has no money to pay the salaries of its employees or the pensions of retired workers can afford to pay for the 60% enrichment of uranium.
Iran tortures its opponents and then parades them on TV, where they confess to spying for Israel. They could be trade unionists, climate-change activists or radical students with no connection to any foreign power, never mind Israel. Yet because of the Israeli attacks Iran has suffered, organised by ‘trusted’ supporters of the regime, there can be no doubt that there are Israeli spies in the ranks of its own ‘Passdars’, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Once you rule a country to further the aims of capital, as Iran’s clerics and their supporters have done for the last four decades, you should expect spies amongst your most trusted agents.
According to a Ha’aretz opinion article, entitled ‘Netanyahu plays dangerous game with Iran and Biden. It could help him politically’,
The prime minister’s perception is that creating a confrontation with the US administration will allow him to market himself as the only actor capable of diffusing it ... Benjamin Netanyahu is deliberately and dangerously escalating an ongoing low-intensity confrontation with Iran, with two interlocking objectives guiding him.2
These are, firstly, to use his obsession with Iran to help him form the kind of government he has not managed to bring about in the last few years; and,
Secondly, a diplomatic objective: to undermine, disrupt and complicate the already complex US-Iran negotiations in Vienna. This almost inevitably entails friction and a possible rift with the Biden administration.
The Ha’aretz commentator points out that,
as long as Israel was inflicting damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but keeping quiet and opaque about it, Iran could absorb the hit as part of a reciprocal low-intensity campaign governed by unwritten rules of escalation and public conduct.
However, unlike him, I do not think Iran will necessarily respond to these threats, now that Israel has stopped concealing its role in various incidents - not just in relation to Iran’s nuclear plants, but also in attacking Iranian ships in the region.
I have always thought of Iran’s Islamic Republic as pragmatic when it comes to foreign policy and right now its very survival depends on making a deal with the US and other nuclear powers. It will not engage Israeli forces openly - not now, nor in the future - as it considers such steps would endanger its relations with western powers.
What everyone keeps forgetting is that, leaving aside the constant slogans against the west, it was not the Islamic Republic that broke relations with the west. What led to the current situation was Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal, combined with European fears about sanctions or other penalties if they continued trade and economic deals with Iran. But it will certainly retaliate with minor revenge operations, as it did on April 13, when an Israeli-owned ship was attacked in the United Arab Emirates by either a drone or a missile.
However, at this stage Iran is unlikely to use its allies in Lebanon or Syria for an attack on Israeli soil. Its priority is to renew the Iran nuclear deal with the Biden administration and to get at least some of the sanctions against it removed.
Israel’s actions reveal increased displeasure, as the talks in Vienna are seen to be making some progress. And in many ways it is those talks that will determine the future of the current Israeli-Iranian skirmishes.