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Iran admits fire at Natanz nuclear site set back its centrifuge program

Experts assess apparent explosion struck serious blow to nuclear program as photos show building flattened; Tehran says it knows what caused fire, but is not saying yet

A satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows a damaged building after a fire and explosion at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, on July 3, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)
A satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies shows a damaged building after a fire and explosion at Iran's Natanz nuclear site, on July 3, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Iran admitted Sunday that its Natanz nuclear facility had incurred “considerable” damage from a mysterious fire last week that ravaged a building at the site, as satellite pictures appeared to show widespread devastation at the sensitive facility.

Iran had sought to downplay the damage from the blaze, though analysts said it had likely destroyed an aboveground lab being used to prepare advanced centrifuges before they were installed underground.

“We first learned that, fortunately, there were no casualties as a result of the incident, but financial damages incurred to the site due to incident were considerable,” said Iran’s atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi.

He confirmed that the damaged building was a centrifuge assembly center and not an “industrial shed,” as earlier claimed.

“More advanced centrifuge machines were intended to be built there,” he said, adding that the damage would “possibly cause a delay in development and production of advanced centrifuge machines in the medium term.”

Authorities have pinpointed the source of the fire, but are withholding the information for national security reasons, he said.

The building was first constructed in 2013 for the development of advanced centrifuges, though work was halted there in 2015 under the nuclear deal with world powers, he added.

When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, the work there was renewed, Kamalvandi said.

He said that the fire had damaged “precision and measuring instruments,” and that the center had not been operating at full capacity due to restrictions imposed by Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran began experimenting with advanced centrifuge models in the wake of the US unilaterally withdrawing from the deal two years ago.

Satellite images of the Natanz site published Sunday by the London-based Iranian news site Iran International appeared to show that the site had incurred more significant damage from a mysterious blast last week than what Tehran had initially disclosed.

The photos showed most of the building flattened with debris scattered around the perimeter, indicating that it had been targeted in an explosion.

A photo and video of the site broadcast by Iranian state television showed a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed.

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of Tehran, Iran, on July 2, 2020. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Experts assess that the damage from the apparent explosion has set back Iran’s nuclear program by a year, according to Israel’s Channel 13 news. The network said Sunday that the lab in Natanz where advanced centrifuges are assembled had been destroyed.

In 2018, Iran showed off IR-2, IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges at the site, in what was seen as a warning to Europe to stick to the nuclear deal after the withdrawal from the accord by the US. Pictures have also purported to show IR-8 centrifuges at Natanz, though Iranian officials have also said the site could not yet handle the ultra-advanced centrifuges.

The fire was one of a series of mysterious disasters to strike sensitive Iranian sites in recent days, leading to speculation that it may be the result of a sabotage campaign.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would extend the term of Mossad chief Yossi Cohen until June 2021, citing unspecified “security challenges.”

“Given the security challenges faced by the state of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Mossad head Yossi Cohen to extend his term by six more months,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

The spymaster is famed in the Mossad ranks as an operations man. Under his watch, the Mossad has reportedly grown in personnel and budgets and has focused on espionage operations targeting the Iranian nuclear program.

This photo combo from the European Commission’s Sentinel-2 satellite shows the site of an explosion, before, left, and after, right, that rattled Iran’s capital, on June 26, 2020. The explosion appears to have charred hundreds of meters of scrubland. (European Commission via AP)

An Israeli TV report Friday night said that Israel was bracing for a possible Iranian retaliation if it determines Jerusalem is behind the Natanz explosion.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz played down the speculation earlier Sunday, saying that not everything that happened there could be blamed on Israel.

“Everyone can be suspicious of us all the time,” Gantz said. “But not every event that happens in Iran is connected to us.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

On Saturday, an explosion reportedly damaged a power plant in Ahvaz, Iran, which was later followed by reports of a chlorine gas leak at a petrochemical center in southeast Iran.

The previous week a large blast was felt in Tehran, apparently caused by an explosion at the Parchin military complex, which defense analysts believe holds an underground tunnel system and missile production facilities.

The Fars news agency, which is close to the country’s ultra-conservatives, initially reported that the Parchin blast was caused by “an industrial gas tank explosion” near a facility belonging to the defense ministry. It cited an “informed source” in saying the site of the incident was not related to the military.

However, this was largely disputed by defense analysts as satellite photographs of the Parchin complex emerged showing large amounts of damage at the site.

Iran long has denied seeking nuclear weapons, though the IAEA previously said Iran had done work in “support of a possible military dimension to its nuclear program” that largely halted in late 2003.

Western concerns over the Iranian atomic program led to sanctions and eventually to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The US under President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018, leading to a series of escalating attacks between Iran and the US, and to Tehran abandoning the deal’s production limits.

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