When a power failure because of a sabotage operation shut down Iran’s Natanz nuclear site on April 11, Iran was quick to describe it as “nuclear terrorism” and to point the finger at Israel. However, Iran’s main concern was to figure out how the sabotage operation took place as various reports pointed to major “intelligence loopholes” in relation to the country’s nuclear sites.
The former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Fereydoon Abbasi Davani confirmed that the sabotage was technically complex, beautifully planned, and it succeeded because Natanz lacked a proper emergency plan to supply power in the event of a blackout. He questioned how Natanz’s main power supply which is dug deep into the ground to ensure the site remains operational even in the event of disruptions could have been targeted. Several thousand centrifuges that enrich uranium were not operational after the sabotage operation, delaying Iran’s nuclear program by months.
Tehran tried to conceal the extent of the sabotage operation by claiming that emergency power was restored at Natanz a day after. The sabotage operation occurred exactly a day after Tehran had boasted that it had reactivated centrifuges that were tampered with in a similar operation targeting Natanz a year earlier.
It is still unclear how Natanz’s main power supply and its backup were cut off. In Israel, it was blamed on a cyberattack or an adhesive bomb that may have been detonated remotely. But on April 17, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence quickly identified the perpetrator of the attack as 43-year-old Reza Karimi and said he had fled the country by air.
Security breaches at Iran’s nuclear sites have stirred heated debate inside the country. The Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaee admitted that a “security loophole” resulting from “intelligence contamination” led to the sabotage operation at Natanz. It remains to be seen what these expressions exactly mean, but they suggest that Iran does not have the ability to protect its nuclear sites. A member of Iran’s Parliament Alireza Zakani has claimed that Tehran is not even seriously looking into the full dimensions of the sabotage operation. Moreover, nuclear experts in Iran insist that the Iranian government’s record in relation to upholding security at its nuclear sites is poor, and that sabotage operations targeting nuclear sites are likely to occur again.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the sabotage operation was a sign of weakness by Iran’s enemies who are trying to reverse the progress made in ongoing nuclear talks with global powers.
Iran will have to utilize the latest technologies to avert future sabotage operations. In addition, Iranian nuclear experts say that Iran must strengthen its nuclear security mechanisms, remain a few steps ahead of its enemy plans, identify internal and external intelligence/security loopholes, forecast potential sabotage operations, and improve Natanz’s security protocols.
By and large, Tehran is told to view the latest sabotage operation as a “red” warning sign. The Iranian government has also been criticized by “hardliners” for partaking in nuclear talks while Iran’s nuclear sites are facing sabotage operations. Critics of the Iranian political system say the latest sabotage operation suggests that the enemy has already penetrated Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, and the country is too divided internally to fix its security problems. In addition, they argue that even modest success at the nuclear talks will not make things easier for Iran as long as Israel’s security interests are much more significant than Tehran’s.