Since June a series of explosions and fires have rocked Iran, with sabotage by foreign powers suspected as the cause. The United States, and primarily Israel, are believed to be involved, both of whom have tense relations with Iran.
Known incidents so far include:
26 June – Explosions at the Khojir missile production facility. Iranian government initially blamed a gas explosion at the nearby Parchin military base. There was also a fire at a power plant in Shiraz.
30 June – An explosion at a medical clinic in the capital Tehran left 19 dead.
2 July – Fire damage to a building housing specialised equipment at Natanz, Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility. An unknown group called Homeland Cheetahs claimed responsibility.
3 July – Large fire in Shiraz.
4 July – Explosion at a power plant in Ahwaz; chlorine gas leak near the port of Bandar Imam Khomeini.
11 July – Several gas cylinders explode in the basement of an apartment building in Tehran.
12 July – Fire at a petrochemical facility in Mahshahr, believed to have been caused by an oil leak.
13 July – 6 gas storage tanks caught fire and another exploded at an industrial zone near Mashhad.
15 July – 7 boats caught fire at a shipyard in the port of Bushehr.
18 July – Explosion and fire at a power plant in central Isfahan province, the electric company blaming “wear and tear” on a transformer; another explosion at an oil pipeline in the Ahvaz region.
Of particular significance is the explosion at Natanz which is Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility. Both the United States and Israel have raised their concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. In May, President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal, a move that Israeli PM Netanyahu “fully supports”. Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashenazi stated that any Iranian nuclear capability poses an “existential threat to Israel”. Both the US and Israel have taken action in the past to limit the spread of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East. Israel bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981, as well as a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, in 2003 compiled and later acted on an assassination list of 15 key Iranian nulcear researchers. The recent explosion at Natanz is also significant as it has been the subject of attacks in the past. A top Iranian official who worked at Natanz was killed in a blast in 2012, and a joint US-Isreali cyber attack damaged 1000 centrifuges at the facility between late 2009 and early 2010.
Tensions have long been high between the US, Israel and Iran. Israel has long been the subject of attacks by Hezbollah, a terror group that is widely believed to be an Iranian proxy. The United States also carried out a drone strike on January 3rd of this year, killing Iranian Major General Soleimani, commander of Quds Force. Iran retaliated with Operation Martyr Soleimani which injured 110 US service members in Iraq. A later missile attack on Camp Taji in Iraq killed 2 US and 1 British service member, an attack believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah.
In regards to the explosions, Israel has faced the most suspicion but has not admitted any involvement. However, Foreign Minister Ashkenazi did say that “we [Israel] take actions that are better left unsaid”.
Other unnamed sources have been quoted in the media. The New York Times quoted a ‘Middle Eastern intelligence official‘ who claimed that Israel was responsible for Natanz; The Times of Israel reported that the said official may have been Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad. Business Insider also quoted an anonymous former Israeli defence official: “I don’t know which ones exactly and wouldn’t tell you anyway because the entire point is for the Iranians to feel considerable stress trying to decide what might have been our work”. Another anonymous source for Business Insider, supposedly an EU intelligence official, believed that there is an Israeli plan to “provoke an Iranian response that can turn into a military escalation while Trump remains in office”. This is perhaps because if Trump fails to gain re-election, Biden, who was Vice-President under Obama, may decide that the US would again support the Iranian nuclear deal. The deal has always been opposed by Israel.
It is difficult to dismiss this many explosions and fires as just mere accidents, but we should be careful not to jump to conclusions in blaming either the United States or Israel. Tensions in the region are very high, and the potential for violent retaliation is significant. Furthermore, if there is in fact Israeli sabotage for the reasons put forward by Business Insider, for the Iranians to acknowledge it would only play into Israel’s hand. Any response by Iran will thus be considered extremely carefully, to the extent that we may never know the real cause of the explosions.