Washington has conveyed to Israel in no uncertain terms that the “chatter” about its alleged involvement in the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility early this week 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, Channel 12 news reported Friday.
The unsourced report said the message was conveyed to Jerusalem through several channels in recent days.
The network further cited unnamed Israeli security officials expressing concern at the uncharacteristic degree to which Israel has allowed itself to be tied to the attack on the nuclear site. The officials questioned whether the increased bluster was an attempt to affect nuclear negotiations in Vienna, or perhaps an effort by the prime minister to use Iran for internal political gain.
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.
Israel is normally completely silent on the secret exploits of its security services, and Israel’s military censor routinely prevents publication of such details, forcing local media to cite foreign media reports, but that did not happen this time.
Iran has directly blamed Israel for the attack and vowed revenge.
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.
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.”
Gantz referred specifically to comments regarding Sunday’s alleged attack 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, who is visiting Israel this week.
Gantz was also asked if he harbored any concerns that Netanyahu, whose office directly controls the Mossad, was acting not out of national security considerations but out of his own political interests, raising the specter of war in order to pressure potential allies into joining his government coalition.
“I think the prime minister has extensive experience in the political-diplomatic field and I wouldn’t belittle that. I think that all other considerations must be removed, and I hope that is what he is doing,” Gantz said.
The defense minister 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 (meaning 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 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 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.
“The Zionists want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted by Iranian press as saying, “but we will not allow it and take revenge on the Zionists themselves.”
Zarif additionally said that “acts of sabotage” and sanctions will give the United States no extra leverage in talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which are being held in Vienna.
The US, Israel’s main security partner, is seeking to reenter the 2015 atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so that it cannot pursue a nuclear weapon — a move staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly Netanyahu.
The US has said it is prepared to lift or ease sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the nuclear deal along with sanctions that are “inconsistent with the benefits” that Iran expected to get from agreeing to the accord.
However, some lawmakers in Tehran have called for the discussions to be suspended in the wake of the incident at Natanz, although the US denied that it was involved.
Still, deliberations took place on Thursday, with Russia later saying talks were “positive.”
Iran this week announced in the wake of the sabotage that it had begun enriching uranium to 60 percent — up from 20% and closer and closer to weapons-grade 90%.
An Israeli TV report on Tuesday night said that Iran will only be able to enrich very small quantities of uranium to 60% since Natanz is still out of commission. Some reports have estimated the sabotage may take Iran some nine months to overcome.
Iran has a second enrichment facility in Fordo, but it is much smaller.
Channel 13 analyst Alon Ben-David said that despite Iranian officials’ talk of higher enrichment, they cannot do it at Natanz, since the 6,000 centrifuges there remain “out of action.”
According to the network, the bomb went off Sunday at 4 a.m., when some 1,000 workers were at Natanz. The facility was reportedly evacuated immediately after the blast over fears of further bombs, but no other explosives were found.
“All the signs point to this being the worst attack that Iran’s nuclear program has suffered… at the most important Iranian nuclear facility,” said Ben-David.
Natanz has previously been targeted, including by an explosion that rocked the facility last summer, in what was also said to have been an Israeli attack aimed at disrupting uranium enrichment and research at the site. In 2010, the United States and Israel allegedly halted Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet virus, which caused Iranian centrifuges to tear themselves apart, reportedly destroying a fifth of the country’s machines.