Yesterday, Iran announced that a blackout occurred at a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Media had initially reported that an electrical problem was at fault, but later a cyberattack turned out to be the likely cause. Iranian officials pointed the finger at Israel. And indeed, some Hebrew-language media seem to confirm Mossad was behind the attack.
New Uranium Enrichment Centrifuges in Natanz
The Natanz nuclear facility is part of Iran’s nuclear program. The site, located close to a town of the same name at the foot of the Karkas mountain chain (population of approx. 15,000) is used for uranium enrichment. Iran halted operations at the facility in 2004 following negotiations with Europe. However, Iran resumed operations just a couple of years later, under close monitoring from the UN’s nuclear watchdog.
In 2019, Iran further expanded the site’s underground facilities. A year later, following the assassination of an Iranian military officer, Qasem Soleimani, in a targeted American drone strike, Iran declared that it would no longer abide by the international Nuclear Deal of 2015.
A year later, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion and a fire at a workshop that destroyed almost the entire building. Authorities described the incident as an act of sabotage by Israel’s Mossad. Thereafter, Iran moved most centrifuges to an underground plant deep inside a nearby mountain. Then last Saturday, the government unveiled new and more advanced centrifuges during a ceremony that marked the country’s Nuclear Technology Day.
Is Israel Behind Cyberattack on Nuclear Facility in Iran?
On Sunday morning, only a day after Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani showed the three brand new centrifuge cascades – 164 IR-6, 30 IR-5 and another 30 IR-6 devices – to the nation, an “incident” at the facility caused a blackout. Iranian media reported that a problem with the electrical distribution grid had led to the system failure. No one was injured and the incident did not cause any contamination.
Israeli media quickly contradicted the official Iranian account. They declared the incident was not an accident, but a cyberattack, and that the damage was far greater than what Iranian officials had reported. Apparently, the attack has shutdown much of Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz and sets back their nuclear program by at least several months.
The head of the atomic energy organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, condemns the move. And said that the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) need to deal with “nuclear terrorism”. He also said that Iran “reserves the right to take action against the perpetrators”.
Not the First Time Natanz Suffers a Cyberattack
Yesterday’s attack was not the first time that Natanz has suffered a cybersecurity incident. Between 2007 and 2010 an ingenious computer worm targeted and sabotaged the plant, causing equipment to malfunction. The malicious worm, called Stuxnet, was allegedly developed by the United States and Israel. However, neither country has ever openly admitted responsibility.
Since the Stuxnet attack, Iran has invested heavily in their cyber-attack capabilities. In recent years Iranian backed hacker groups have launched numerous attacks on US organizations, such as banks, universities, healthcare institutes and technology firms. The US has retaliated with attacks on Iranian missile facilities and intelligence groups.
Meanwhile, tensions are rising between Israel and Iran. The cyberattack is just one in a series of incidents in recent years. There have been a number of attacks on both Iranian and Israeli maritime vessels, reprisal airstrikes by Israel in Syria (a strategic ally of Iran), the assassination of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, and even a mysterious oil spill in Northern Israel.
Reviving the 2015 Nuclear Deal
The attack has happened whilst world powers are in the midst of mediated talks with Iran about reviving the 2015 international Nuclear Deal. The deal limited the quantities of enriched uranium Iran could produce. The former US president, Donald Trump, abandoned the deal in 2018 and reimposed economic sanctions on Iran instead.
Since the US withdrawal, Iran has gradually breached more and more restrictions. At their Natanz plant, Iran now enriches uranium of up to 20% purity and says it can easily handle 80%. The level needed to build nuclear weapons is 90% purity. Nonetheless, Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
President Joe Biden is keen to rewind his predecessor’s decisions, arguing that under the Nuclear Deal Iran had largely scaled back nuclear activities. The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday to explain the US’s new position. The Biden administration also hopes to craft a stronger deal with Iran. Preferably before the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June.