Huge blaze reported at Iranian chemical factory near Qom; cause unclear

Fire injures at least 2; incident comes amid escalating tensions with Israel, which Tehran blamed for a blast at Natanz nuclear plant last month

Heavy black smoke rises from Movaledan chemical factory in the vicinity of Qom, one of Iran’s prominent religious cities on May 2, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)
Heavy black smoke rises from Movaledan chemical factory in the vicinity of Qom, one of Iran’s prominent religious cities on May 2, 2021. (Screen capture: Twitter)

A chemical factory near the central city of Qom caught fire Sunday, Iranian media reported, in a blaze that injured at least two firefighters.

Videos showed heavy black smoke rising from Movaledan chemical factory in the vicinity of Qom, one of Iran’s prominent religious cities.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.

Twenty fire engines and 150 firefighters were dispatched to the site, the semiofficial ISNA news agency quoted Qom fire department spokesman Hamid Karimi as saying.

Karimi said the firefighters managed to stop the fire from reaching alcohol tanks, although there were several explosions and two fire engines caught fire.

Two firefighters were injured, with one in critical condition, ISNA reported. Israel’s Channel 12 news said at least six people were injured in total.

While the cause of the incident wasn’t immediately known, it comes against the backdrop of several explosions at Iranian nuclear sites that have been blamed on Israel.

On April 11, Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant suffered a blast that blew up the main and backup power supply to the underground enrichment facility — an attack that Tehran pinned on Israel.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement but media reports have since said it was a sabotage operation by the Mossad spy agency. The blast caused damage to various kinds of the 6,000 centrifuges there and set back enrichment for six to nine months, according to Israeli and American reports.

This satellite photo provided from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran began enriching uranium Friday, April 16, 2021, to its highest level ever at Natanz, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on the site. (Planet Labs via AP)

In response, Iran boosted its uranium enrichment to 60 percent. The step brings Iran closer to the 90% purity threshold for military use and shorten its potential “breakout time” to build an atomic bomb — a goal the Islamic Republic denies.

Israel and Iran have also blamed each other for attacks on their ships in the region, which have mostly caused minor damage.

Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri delivers a speech during a military parade marking the 36th anniversary of Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

After an Iranian tanker was attacked off Syria’s coast last week, Iran’s Armed Forces chief blamed Israel and threatened that the Resistance Front would teach the Jewish state “a very good lesson.”

Israeli and American national security advisers met in Washington last week to discuss concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and US efforts to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly instructed the Israeli delegation of security officials to voice objection to the US return to the Iran nuclear deal, but not to hold talks on the details.

Israeli officials, including Ambassador Gilad Erdan (R), National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat (2R) meet with US officials Brett McGurk (L), US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (2L) and Barbara Leaf (3L) at the Israeli embassy in Washington DC on April 27, 2021 (Embassy of Israel)

Indirect talks in Vienna between Iran, the US and other major powers are aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that has been on life support since former president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Trump’s administration subsequently issued a host of sanctions against Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” strategy aimed at coaxing Tehran into a stricter agreement to curb its nuclear weapons program.

Israel has urged his successor, Joe Biden, to maintain Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” and claimed that returning to the JCPOA now would squander the leverage accumulated by the US as a result of the sanctions that have damaged the Iranian economy.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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