War Stories

Why Do Things Keep Blowing Up in Iran?

Israel? The U.S.? The mysterious “Homeland Cheetahs”? Just accidents? Whoever’s responsible, it’s having an impact.

Blurry screen capture of an explosion in the night sky.
Footage obtained from Iranian state TV IRIB on June 26 shows an orange light resulting from what the country’s defense ministry said was the explosion of a gas tank in Tehran. Getty Images

Something strange is going on in Iran. Since June, fires or explosions have erupted at six factories and other facilities, two of them military in nature—the Parchin missile-production plant and the Natanz nuclear site.

At Natanz, the Iranian government has acknowledged, a fire greatly damaged an “industrial shed” where advanced centrifuges were being built—machines that could have sped up the process of building an atomic bomb. Satellite photos showed the shed’s doors hanging off their hinges, blown outward. An official with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said the damage set back Iran’s nuclear program by months.*

Is Israel or the United States, or both, to blame? The Iranians certainly think so, and Israeli officials are doing little to discourage suspicion. Asked about this by reporters, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz replied, “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us”—leaving wide-open the possibility that these incidents might have. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi went further: “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities,” he said, adding that, to preempt this prospect, “we take actions that are better left unsaid.”

The explosions may have been set off by cyberattacks, a much scaled-down version of the U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet virus that manipulated the controls at the Natanz site in 2010, destroying thousands of centrifuges by slowing down or speeding up their spin cycles—and doing so in a way that left Iranian scientists thinking the problems were caused by human error or malfunctioning parts.

For this reason, some doubt the latest explosions were cyberattacks. A former senior official at the National Security Agency, which helped design Stuxnet and other hacking tools, told me that most cyberoffensive programs are designed to make the resulting damage look like an accident—whereas the size and frequency of these latest attacks have the earmarks of sabotage. It is also unusual for a cyberattack to set off a huge explosion. On the other hand, another former official said the fire at the Parchin missile factory—which was caused by a gas explosion—could have been triggered by a cyberattack on the plant’s gas controls.

These former officials, and others that I asked, emphasized that they have no inside knowledge of what happened. Some of the explosions might have been accidents; Iran’s record of handling complex technology isn’t stellar. But some of them were almost certainly deliberate. On Friday, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said that the cause of the Natanz fire had been “accurately determined,” but then offered no details.

If saboteurs were at work, it is at least as likely that they used old-fashioned methods—smuggling in a bomb and detonating it remotely. The New York Times quoted a member of Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as saying the explosion at Natanz was caused by a bomb—an astonishing admission of lax security at Iran’s most cherished and sensitive nuclear facility. The Times also quoted a “Middle East intelligence official” as saying that Israel was responsible for the attack.

Then again, Jiyar Gol, a reporter for BBC Persian, reported on Monday that just after midnight on June 30, he received an email from an unknown group calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs. The group—which claimed to be composed of dissidents within Iran’s military and security forces—said that they had blown up a facility at the Natanz site two hours earlier. Gol went online to see if anyone was reporting such an explosion; he found nothing. Then, “several hours later,” Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that there had been an incident at the Natanz plant.

Could the bombing have been an inside job? Is it a sign of deep fissures within Iran’s most trusted security forces? Maybe. Or, just as likely (if not more so), Israeli forces want the Iranian regime to think so—in part to divert attention from themselves (and, possibly, discourage a retaliatory attack), in part to foment distrust within high levels of the Iranian government and deepen whatever fissures exist.

Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post quoted Raz Zimmt, an Iran specialist at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, saying that these attacks—along with several other recent incidents and outbreaks of neglect and vulnerability—are having an impact on the Iranian public. These other incidents include the U.S. drone attack that killed Iran’s most powerful military leader, Qassem Soleimani; an Israeli raid, in 2018, that seized a half-ton of nuclear documents from an archive in the center of Tehran; and the regime’s utter incompetence at dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 11,000 Iranians.* “Fingers are pointed at the regime that it does not provide its citizens with security,” Zimmt said.

On Sunday, Iran’s newly elected Parliament, heavily dominated by hard-liners, heckled Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, accusing him of selling out the country by negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States—a deal that U.S. President Donald Trump has since revoked, resulting in the reimposition of economic sanctions that the deal was beginning to lift in exchange for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program. On Monday, the parliamentarians called President Hassan Rouhani for harsh questions about the country’s many economic and security issues.

At Sunday’s session, Zarif told the legislators, “You should know we are in the same boat. We are all in this together. The U.S. does not recognize [the difference between Iranian] liberals, reformists, and conservatives—revolutionaries and nonrevolutionaries.”

It’s a point that the Trump administration, and the Israeli government, should absorb. If they are responsible for the fires and explosions of recent weeks, as part of their “maximum pressure” campaign to disrupt and destabilize the Iranian regime, they should know that the successors to Rouhani and Zarif are not likely to be the Western-leaning young people who have occasionally protested in the streets or the dissident members of the Homeland Cheetahs (if such a group really exists). They are more likely to be the elite military and security forces themselves, whose longtime distrust of the West has been intensified by Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal—and who, if they come to power, will crack down harder on domestic dissent and push faster on a military buildup against the U.S. and its allies.

Trump and his top advisers—notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—have long been pushing for regime change in Tehran. They should be careful what they wish for.

Correction, July 8, 2020: This piece originally misattributed a claim to the International Atomic Energy Agency that was made by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Correction, July 7, 2020: This piece originally misstated that COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 Iranians. It has killed more than 11,000 Iranians.

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