Iran names suspect in Natanz nuclear plant attack, says he fled country

State TV names wanted man as Reza Karimi, 43; displays Interpol-style ‘red notice’ seeking his arrest, though Interpol has not confirmed the notice is official

A passport-style photo published by Iranian state television shows Reza Karimi, 43, whom Tehran says was behind the sabotage at Natanz on April 11 that it has blamed on Israel (video screenshot)
A passport-style photo published by Iranian state television shows Reza Karimi, 43, whom Tehran says was behind the sabotage at Natanz on April 11 that it has blamed on Israel (video screenshot)

Iran state television on Saturday named a suspect in last week’s attack that damaged centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear site and said he fled the country.

While the extent of the damage from the April 11 sabotage remains unclear, it comes as Iran tries to negotiate with world powers over allowing the US to re-enter its tattered nuclear deal with world powers and lift the economic sanctions it faces.

State television named the suspect as 43-year-old Reza Karimi. It showed a passport-style photograph of a man it identified as Karimi, saying he was born in the nearby city of Kashan, Iran.

The report did not elaborate how Karimi would have gotten access to one of the most secure facilities in the Islamic Republic. According to unsourced reports in US and Israeli media, Natanz’s main and backup power lines were blown up by a 150-kilogram bomb early on April 11, hours after Iran publicly began using advanced IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges at the site, in open breach of the 2015 international nuclear deal.

The report also aired what appeared to be an Interpol “red notice” seeking his arrest. The arrest notice was not immediately accessible on Interpol’s public-facing database. Interpol, based in Lyon, France, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A photo aired by Iranian state television shows Reza Karimi in an Interpol-style ‘wanted’ poster. Tehran says Karimi was behind the sabotage at Natanz on April 11 that it has blamed on Israel (vide screenshot)

The TV report said “necessary actions” were underway to bring Karimi back to Iran through legal channels, without elaborating. The supposed Interpol “red notice” listed his travel history as including Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Ethiopia, Qatar, Turkey, Uganda, Romania and another country that was illegible.

The report also showed centrifuges in a hall, as well as what appeared to be caution tape up at the Natanz facility.

In Vienna, negotiations continued over the deal Saturday. The 2015 accord, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in 2018, prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon if it chose in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The attack Sunday, suspected to have been carried out by Israel, has inflamed a shadow war between the two nations. Iran has begun enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60 percent purity — its highest level ever, and a short step from weapons grade — in response amid talks in Vienna aimed at saving its tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

A senior Iranian official confirmed Tuesday that the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility, which Tehran blames on Israel, destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

On Monday, an Iranian official acknowledged that the blast took out the plant’s main electrical power system and its backup. “From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, told Iranian state television on Monday.

“They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

The comments from Davani, the former head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, came as reports in Israel and the US provided new details of the early Sunday bombing and its consequences, with assessments that the blast would set back the Iranians by 6-9 months.

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

The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. This official also specified that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.

The report said that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the explosion inside the bunker had created a hole so big that he fell into it when trying to examine the damage, injuring his head, back, leg and arm.

Natanz, in Iran’s central Isfahan province, hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. (AP)

Nevertheless, other Iranian officials tried to play down the damage in the underground facility.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed Monday that emergency power had already been restored at the plant and enrichment was continuing.

“A large portion of the enemy’s sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped,” he told Iranian media, according to the Times.

And on Friday, Iranian officials, including Salahi, said Iran was now enriching uranium to 60% at Natanz. Salehi said the centrifuges now produce 9 grams an hour, but that would drop to 5 grams an hour in the coming days. “Now, any enrichment [level] is possible if we decide it,” Salehi said.

Enrichment to 60% marks a significant escalation and is a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran had been enriching up to 20%, and even that was a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

But analysts assess that Iran can only enrich in small amounts for now, due to the extensive damage to the Natanz site.

On Friday Israel’s Channel 12 news reported that Washington has conveyed to Israel that the “chatter” about its alleged involvement in the blast at Natanz must stop, warning that it is dangerous and detrimental as well as embarrassing to the Biden administration as it attempts to negotiate a return to the nuclear deal with Tehran.

The unsourced report said the message was conveyed to Jerusalem through several channels in recent days.

Israel has not officially commented on the sabotage at Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility, which an Iranian official has said damaged or destroyed thousands of centrifuges.

But there has been plenty of anonymous confirmation in the Israeli and foreign media by unnamed intelligence officials, with detailed accounts of the bomb attack that reportedly cut off the power supply to centrifuges and caused some of them extensive damage. And officials, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, have hinted at Israeli responsibility.

Amid the heightened tensions, Israel’s security cabinet was set to meet Sunday for the first time in some two and a half months to discuss recent developments. Meetings of the high-level forum are usually a weekly affair, but have been another casualty of the ongoing dysfunction in the power-sharing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

According to Channel 12, the latest meeting came at the behest of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who warned ministers of the legal issues arising from their failure to convene on a regular basis.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaking at Channel 12’s Influencers Conference on March 7, 2021. (Sindel/Flash90)

Channel 13 reported that IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi and Mossad head Yossi Cohen will be at Sunday’s meeting, and that ministers will discuss whether to carry out more attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program or seek calm. The report said Gantz favors an “active approach” on Iran, but that he also fears the chatter on the issue is causing “real damage to the security of the state” — both embarrassing the Americans and making it harder for Iran to restrain itself from retaliating.

Gantz on Monday called for a high-level investigation into recent apparent leaks to the press by Israeli officials regarding attacks on Iran, saying they were “damaging to our troops, to our security and to the interests of the State of Israel.”

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