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Explainer

From diplomacy to sabotage: Iran’s nuclear program and efforts to thwart it

Iran insists atomic goals are peaceful, but has long been accused of secret weapons program; meanwhile, Tehran blames US and Israel for cyberattacks, explosions and assassinations

In this Aug. 16, 2005 file photo, Iranian women form a human chain, at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility, in support of Iran's nuclear program, just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
In this Aug. 16, 2005 file photo, Iranian women form a human chain, at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility, in support of Iran's nuclear program, just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s nuclear program has been targeted by diplomatic efforts and sabotage attacks over the last decade, with the latest incident, which Tehran blames on Israel, striking its underground Natanz facility.

The attack Sunday at Natanz comes as world powers try to negotiate a return by Iran and the US to Tehran’s atomic accord. The sabotage threatens to upend those negotiations and further heighten regional tensions across the Mideast.

From ‘Atoms for Peace’ to proliferation

Iran’s nuclear program actually began with the help of the United States. Under its “Atoms for Peace” program, America supplied a test reactor that came online in Tehran in 1967 under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. That help ended once Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah.

In the 1990s, Iran expanded its program, including secretly buying equipment from Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan helped create Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and his proliferation aided North Korea in obtaining the atomic bombs it has today. Khan’s designs allowed Iran to build the IR-1 centrifuges that largely power its uranium enrichment.

Tehran insists its atomic program is peaceful. However, Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” in a “structured program” through the end of 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency has said. That’s an assessment shared by US intelligence agencies and the State Department. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu long has alleged Iran continues to want nuclear weapons to this day.

Iran’s nuclear sites

Natanz, in Iran’s central Isfahan province, hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. Iran has one operating nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which it opened with Russia’s help in 2011. Iran previously reconfigured its Arak heavy-water reactor so it couldn’t produce plutonium. Its Fordo enrichment site is also dug deep into a mountainside. Tehran also still operates the Tehran research reactor.

The Bushehr nuclear power plant outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran. (AP Photo/Mehr News Agency, Majid Asgaripour, File)

Nuclear deal and its downfall

Iran struck the nuclear deal in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, saw Iran dramatically limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of IAEA inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The small stockpile of less-enriched uranium blocked Iran from having enough material to build a nuclear bomb if it chose.

Then-US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018, in part over the deal not addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support of allied terror groups in the Middle East. Architects of the deal, containing provisions that expire over time, had said they hoped American officials could build on it for future agreements.

Since the US withdrawal, Iran has in response abandoned all the deal’s limits of its uranium enrichment. It spins advanced centrifuges, grows its stockpile and enriches up to 20% purity — a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

This photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran on November 5, 2019, shows centrifuge machines at Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has said he’s willing to reenter the nuclear deal. Countries began negotiations in Vienna last week seeking to find a way forward. Israel, which under Netanyahu has vowed not to see the deal revived, is widely suspected of recently stepping up a shadow campaign targeting Iran.

Beyond diplomacy, there have been other, more clandestine efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear drive.

Cyberattacks

In 2010, a powerful computer virus called Stuxnet attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in an apparent bid to set back the country’s atomic program.

Stuxnet affected the functioning of Iranian nuclear sites, infecting several thousand computers and blocking centrifuges used for the enrichment of uranium.

Tehran accused Israel and the US of being at the origin of the virus.

Since Stuxnet, Iran on the one side and Israel and the United States on the other have regularly accused each other of cyberattacks.

Iranian scientists slain

In January 2010, Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a renowned particle physics professor at Tehran University, was killed when a booby-trapped motorcycle exploded outside his home in the capital.

Several leaders and official media in Iran quickly blamed the attack on Israeli and US intelligence services.

Two scientists with key roles in the Iranian nuclear program were targeted in Tehran in November 2010 by two bomb attacks that Iran blamed on Israel and the US. One of the scientists, Majid Shahriari, was killed.

Between 2010 and 2012, at the height of the crisis with world powers over Iran’s nuclear program, a total of four Iranian scientists were assassinated in Tehran, with Iran accusing the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Israeli spy service Mossad of being behind the killings.

In November 2020, Iran blamed Israel for being behind the assassination of one of its most prominent nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who headed its defense ministry’s research and innovation organization. He was identified after his death as a deputy defense minister.

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital, Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP); inset: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Explosions

In November 2011, an explosion in a munitions depot of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a Tehran suburb killed at least 36 people, including General Hassan Moghadam, who was in charge of weapons programs for Iran’s ideological army.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the US and Israel had led the operation against the Iranian nuclear program.

In July 2020, an explosion damaged a facility making advanced centrifuges in Natanz in central Iran.

The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Authorities initially said the incident was an accident but said several weeks later that it was “sabotage.”

A setback?

The extent of the damage to Natanz remains unclear at the moment. Iran has yet to broadcast any images of the facility on state television, though an official said first-generation centrifuges had been damaged. It’s unclear if any of the damage will be able to be seen from the air as its centrifuge halls are all underground. NASA fire satellites detected no visible blasts at the facility either Saturday or Sunday.

The longterm effects on Iran’s atomic program as a whole also remain unclear. If the attack halts centrifuges at Natanz, they still spin at Fordo. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, vowed Sunday to keep advancing the country’s nuclear technology.

The sabotage comes at a sensitive time for outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration is trying to claw back its signature diplomatic achievement through the Vienna talks. Term-limited from seeking office again, the relative-moderate Rouhani will bow out to whoever wins Iran’s upcoming June presidential election.

If Iran can’t regain the benefits of the deal, it could boost hard-liners within the Islamic Republic. Already, some media outlets demanded Monday for Rouhani to pull out of the Vienna negotiations.

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