Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that a bomb that caused severe damage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility was likely placed there more than a decade ago, waiting for the right time to be detonated.
While specifying repeatedly that he had no direct knowledge of the operation, or who was behind it, Olmert said such an attack would have been the fruit of long-laid plans. He also slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, blaming him for a series of leaks to Israeli and foreign media that attributed the strike to Israel’s Mossad spy agency.
Iranian officials on Tuesday confirmed that the blast at the site caused significant harm, damaging or destroying thousands of centrifuges. Iran has blamed Israel, calling the attack an act of “nuclear terrorism.”
“I don’t know what happened there, who set it off, if it was planted in that year or another, 10 years ago or 15, I don’t know,” Olmert told the Ynet news site in an interview. “If these things happened, I can think of all sorts of operations that could have caused this, and it is possible the foundations for this were laid a long time ago.”
Olmert was prime minister between 2006 and 2009, famously overseeing Israel’s bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor. The development of the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear program and has been blamed on Israel and the US, was also reportedly developed during his time in office.
“These kinds of missions, whether we carried them out or not, are not ‘somebody broke in two nights ago and planted things there.’ These things happen when all sorts of machines, long before they are even installed, they are already booby-trapped and waiting for the right time,” Olmert said.
A senior Iranian official confirmed Tuesday that the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility 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.
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.”
Despite giving insights into the workings of intelligence operations, Olmert lashed out at Netanyahu, blaming him for a series of apparent leaks that attributed the attack to the Mossad.
His criticism echoed Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who on Monday called for a high-level investigation into recent apparent leaks to the press by Israeli officials regarding recent attacks on Iran that have been widely attributed to Israel’s Mossad spy service, saying they were “damaging to our troops, to our security and to the interests of the State of Israel.”
Gantz referred specifically to comments regarding Sunday’s alleged attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility that were attributed to unnamed “intelligence officials” and “Western officials,” whom the defense minister indicated he believed were in fact Israeli officials.
“This ‘Western officials’ is nonsense,” Gantz told reporters on Monday, following meetings with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Olmert agreed, but went further, specifically laying the blame with Netanyahu.
“I have no doubt that the prime minister of Israel, with his smug bragging, with the deliberate leaks that he either personally endorses or comes from the gang surrounding him, is doing these things on purpose to achieve several goals,” Olmert said.
Olmert said that Netanyahu, who is battling to form a government, was trying to create an atmosphere of fear that Israel faced a military confrontation in order to pressure possible coalition partners. “We know these techniques,” Olmert said.
He also accused Netanyahu of deliberately antagonizing the Americans in a bid to torpedo talks with Iran aimed at bringing Tehran back to the nuclear deal.
“All this talk of ‘foreign sources’ is nonsense. They just leak to foreign reporters in Israel,” he said.
On Monday, Gantz said he was calling for a probe “at the highest possible level” by the Shin Bet security service and by Military Intelligence’s Information Security Department. Asked who he believed was responsible for the leaks, the defense minister said he “did not know specifically where it’s coming from, but I know where it’s not coming from (Gantz’s office), and it has to stop.”
“We cannot act when everyone is chattering on with their opinion. We cannot accept these winks and fairytales from ‘Western officials,’” Gantz said.
Later on Monday, the defense minister’s office said he had officially filed a request with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt, who it said was the appropriate figure to conduct such a probe.
Gantz stressed that he would not comment on the veracity of the claims or discuss any Israeli operations “if there were any, weren’t any or will be any.”
Israel officially maintains a policy of ambiguity regarding its activities against Iran, generally save for those that are in direct retaliation for attacks initiated by Tehran or its proxies.
The morning after the unidentified intelligence officials told the press that the Mossad was responsible for the issues at Natanz, Iran publicly accused Israel of carrying out the attack and threatened retaliation.