After Natanz incident, EU warns against attempts to ‘undermine’ nuclear talks

Germany says reported sabotage at facility ‘not positive’ for negotiations in Vienna, as sides set to reconvene Tuesday

File: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)
File: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

The European Union warned Monday against attempts to derail talks to return the US to the Iran nuclear deal, after apparent sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility that has been widely attributed to Israel.

“We reject any attempts to undermine or weaken diplomatic efforts on the nuclear agreement,” EU spokesman Peter Stano said, insisting that “we still need to clarify the facts” over events at the Iranian nuclear site.

Germany warned that the latest developments in Natanz did not bode well for nuclear talks aimed at reviving the hobbled agreement on curbing Tehran’s atomic ambition.

“What we are hearing currently out of Tehran is not a positive contribution, particularly the development in Natanz,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, ahead of talks in Vienna on Tuesday.

A day after Tehran said it started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in Natanz in breach of the 2015 nuclear deal, it said the site was hit by a power outage that it labeled “terrorism” and blamed on Israel.

Maas said the negotiations in Vienna “will not be easy, but until now, there has been a constructive spirit” shown by participants.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaks at the foreign ministry in Berlin, on February 24, 2021. (Michael Sohn/Pool/AFP)

At the same time, he noted that the situation in Natanz will take on a “particular meaning” and could give clues regarding the extent to which what is discussed in Vienna would then be implemented by Tehran.

Iran on Monday blamed Israel for the sabotage attack, which according to the New York Times was a blast at the power supply to centrifuges that severely damaged the facility. It also warned it would avenge the assault.

Israel has not directly claimed responsibility for the attack. However, suspicion fell immediately on it, as Israeli media widely reported that the devastating cyberattack was orchestrated by Israel. Local media has strong ties to the defense establishment and usually makes such proclamations after being briefed by security officials.

If Israel was responsible, it would further heighten tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop efforts to revive a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, April, 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian/File)

At a news conference at Israel’s Nevatim airbase on Monday, where Austin viewed Israeli air and missile defense systems and its F-35 combat aircraft, he declined to say whether the Natanz incident is likely to impede the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with Iran on its nuclear program.

“Those efforts will continue.” Austin said.

Details remained scarce about what happened early Sunday at the facility. The event was initially described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.

A former chief of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said the attack had also set off a fire at the site and called for improvements in security. In a tweet, Gen. Mohsen Rezaei said that a second fire at Natanz in a year signaled “the seriousness of the infiltration phenomenon.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, meets with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 11, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that Natanz would be reconstructed with more advanced machines, something that could imperil ongoing talks in Vienna with world powers about saving Tehran’s tattered atomic accord.

“The Zionists wanted to take revenge against the Iranian people for their success on the path of lifting sanctions,” Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Zairf as saying. “But we do not allow (it) and we will take revenge for this action against the Zionists.”

Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz during an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

In July, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

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