By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
A fire broke out at Iran’s uranium enrichment site at Natanz on July 2, causing “significant damage,” the BBC reported. Iranian authorities acknowledged the fire at a production facility at the site but first offered conflicting accounts before stating only that the cause had been determined.
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A government spokesman stated that the machinery destroyed in the fire will be replaced with more advanced equipment though enrichment will slow in the interim.
According to the BBC, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said on Sunday that security officials were not talking about what caused the Natanz fire “because of security reasons.”
The incident, he acknowledged, had “caused significant damage, but there were no casualties.”
The fire hit a centrifuge assembly workshop. Some Iranian officials have blamed possible cyber-sabotage. “Centrifuges are needed to produce enriched uranium, which can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear weapons,” the BBC added.
The fire at Natanz was not the only such incident recently. A major explosion rocked the Parchin military complex on June 25, where Iran develops its missile technology.
The Iranian government was quick to dismiss the episode as a gas explosion. But that turned out to be false, The Times said. “Satellite photographs show the explosion happened at a missile production facility not far from Parchin, a base laced with underground tunnels and long suspected to be a major site for Iran’s growing arsenal.”
Unknown Militant Movement Claims Responsibility for Incidents on Iranian Infrastructure
As if that were not enough, several other incidents wreaked havoc on Iranian infrastructure within the past month. While it is certainly possible that these incidents were indeed accidental, a previously unknown militant movement has claimed responsibility.
According to a BBC reporter, a previously unknown group calling itself the “Homeland Cheetahs” took responsibility for the Natanz incident via email. The timing of the email corresponded to the fire, suggesting to the reporter that the author of the email had foreknowledge of the attack.
While that analysis is suggestive, the so-called Cheetahs did not provide any evidence they orchestrated the attack beyond a propaganda video showing past operations. So at this point their claim of responsibility remains unsubstantiated. The Cheetahs claim their organization is home to disgruntled members of Iran’s security apparatus. This is a possibility given Iran’s current economic and political problems.
It is also possible that the Cheetahs organization does not exist and is instead a cover for a group or agency representing a foreign interest. Naturally, suspicion in some circles has centered on Israel, which has carried out covert operations in Iran in the past. But others, such as the United States, have also used covert measures to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s economic woes have only worsened since I wrote the following in November 2018: “Iran’s past behavior and the uptick in alleged clandestine acts suggest that Tehran will do more than simply try to weather this [economic] storm. The political issues behind the economic downturn may prove too difficult to manage without countering in some way. One problem is that these moves and countermoves run the risk of escalating into a confrontation that goes beyond economics.”
Iran did target U.S. assets more aggressively using its proxy forces in Iraq. The situation escalated to the point that the U.S. took to using convention force to target these proxies in Iraq, thus upsetting Baghdad. Washington’s focus then narrowed to the individual heading Iran’s covert response and the U.S. assassination of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded by restarting the enrichment activities at Natanz and by firing convention missiles that missed their intended target, U.S. forces in Iraq.
Missile Barrage Closed One Chapter of Conflict but Laid Bare Iran’s Economic Problems
The missile barrage closed one chapter of conflict. But it laid bare the economic problems, with Iran failing to pay its foreign proxies in Iraq and the substantial rise in prices of basic goods in Iran. Though there is certainly disillusionment within the regime in Iran, this is not a turning point toward any meaningful political change. At least not yet.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia have a lot invested in the current regime and will continue to crack down on demonstrations seen as a threat to the government. This is not an easy thing for dissenters to overcome as the green revolution of a decade past can attest.
If the claims by the so-called Cheetahs are to be taken at face value, there may be just enough dissension in the ranks to cause problems for the regime. That said, the movement is likely small and attempts to gain new recruits will likely put the organization in peril. That is, if the organization actually exists.
The Cheetahs have the feel of a foreign intelligence operation with a disinformation component. But Iran does have a history of anti-regime militant movements, making it difficult to say with any certainty where to place the blame. No matter how many protests or crackdowns occur, they will not alleviate the economic woes or the weak security that has allowed attacks on military and civilian infrastructure.
This is a regime problem that someone is simply exploiting. Tehran will have to find a solution to these problems lest the discontent spread to levels that cannot be controlled.
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