DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Is timing everything regarding this week’s attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility?
In 2010, it came to light that the Stuxnet computer worm had struck Iran, reaching its Natanz nuclear facility. Stuxnet eliminated about 1,000 centrifuges by making them speed up and then slow down, creating vibrations that destroyed them.
The damage to Iran’s nuclear program was serious; Israeli intelligence updated its assessment from Iran needing a year to achieve breakout to it needing four years.
In July 2020, Iran was hit by a series of explosions, including one at Natanz. Experts estimated that three-quarters of the aboveground centrifuge assembly facility was destroyed. Iran’s nuclear program was set back by a year or two.
And this week, before Iran was able to recoup the damage caused by the explosion in July, and less than a day after Iran launched new, advanced uranium enrichment machines at Natanz, the site’s electric grid and its backup system were destroyed, along with large numbers of centrifuges. The latest attack is estimated to have added nine months to Iran’s breakout time.
There is a pattern of targeting Natanz, which not even moving much of the facility underground post-Stuxnet could break to stop Israel’s long arm from reaching it. That much is clear.
But there are several major differences between the first two Natanz attacks and the one this week, and they indicate that Israel is bringing its shadow war with Iran into the light at a highly sensitive time.
Unlike this week, the US reportedly worked together with Israel on the 2010 and 2020 Natanz attacks.
Stuxnet was reportedly a joint project of the NSA and the IDF’s Unit 8200, which the Obama administration pushed in part to deter Israel from a more direct military attack on Iran and steer Israel toward sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program instead, and was part of the efforts to get Iran to the negotiating table.
The 2020 Natanz explosion was part of a shared US-Israel strategy to roll back Iran’s nuclear program by striking at it, in tandem with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure sanctions campaign against the Islamic Republic.
This time, the White House was quick to distance itself from the damage in Natanz.
“The US was not involved in any manner. We have nothing to add on speculation about the causes or the impacts,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Officials in Washington told The Wall Street Journal that they did not know about the attack on Natanz in advance – another clear signal that the US does not want to be tagged as having been involved.
THEN THERE’S the timing of this week’s attack, days after the start of indirect nuclear talks between the US and Iran in Vienna, for their return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which placed limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, which would expire by 2030, in exchange for the gradual lifting of sanctions.
It also took place just as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was heading to Israel, making him the first member of the Biden cabinet to visit.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote an angry letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, saying it is likely that Israel committed the “grave war crime” of attacking the nuclear facility in order to derail nuclear talks, and warned that “nuclear terrorism” cannot be used as leverage in negotiations.
Then, on Tuesday, Iran announced that it would begin enriching uranium to 60%. While they may not actually do so, since their nuclear infrastructure is so damaged, that would bring them closer than ever before to the 90% purity needed for a nuclear weapon.
There’s also the issue of Israel’s political instability. This escalation is taking place precisely as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form a government. Some have questioned Netanyahu’s motives, arguing that a national security emergency could be just the impetus for his most stubborn opponents to join his government and for him to remain in office.
That being said, there are many factors in the timing over which Netanyahu has no control. Israel’s political calendar doesn’t determine Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, which is when the launch of the new enrichment machines – and their subsequent sabotage – took place in Natanz, nor does it have any bearing on when negotiations take place in Vienna.
And even the Vienna talks may not have been the deciding factor for when to strike Natanz. The operation got under way long before the negotiations were announced.
The timing that Netanyahu and others do decide on is when to talk about operations.
Neither Israel nor the US openly admitted to their involvement in the previous Natanz attacks. Intelligence leaker Edward Snowden openly said that Stuxnet was an American-Israeli project, and analysts outside of the governments said the same. But when it came to admissions from actual officials in Washington or Jerusalem, The New York Times was left parsing what it means that “Israeli officials grin widely when asked about its effects” and that a top Obama aide spoke about Stuxnet “with a smile.”
This time, Israel has not openly taken responsibility for the attack. However, several major Israeli news outlets, including The Jerusalem Post, reported within hours that it was a Mossad operation. This is highly unusual. News about these kinds of operations almost always come from foreign outlets, and then Israeli media quote them to get around the military censor.
At the same time, Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi dropped hints about Israeli involvement.
In an apparent reference to the overnight developments, from newly launched uranium enrichment machines to a destroyed electric grid, Netanyahu said: “The struggle against Iran and its proxies and Iranian armament is a huge mission. The situation that exists today may not be the situation tomorrow.”
Kohavi said “the IDF’s actions throughout the Middle East are not hidden from our enemies. They’re watching us, seeing our abilities and carefully weighing their next steps.”
The IDF chief of staff also referred to “complex and sophisticated acts” to protect Israel.
The Natanz attack and these comments don’t come in a vacuum. They’re part of an ongoing, quiet, multi-theater “war between the wars” campaign, as the Israeli defense establishment calls operations outside of a declared war.
Since 2019, the sea has been a major theater for Israel’s shadow war with Iran, with Israel quietly attacking Iranian oil tankers mostly heading to Syria, and Iran striking an Israeli-owned ship. There’s the Environmental Protection Ministry’s allegation that Iran intentionally dumped oil near Israeli shores. Last week, a limpet mine exploding on the Iranian Saviz ship, which served as a base in the Red Sea for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was reportedly planted by Israeli commandos.
On land, Israel was behind the assassination of the chief scientist of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and an Iran-linked group attempted to bomb the Israeli Embassy in India. In the air, Israel has bombed Iranian proxies operating close to the border with Syria.
In cyberspace, there’s the July 2020 Natanz explosion, which some have said was sparked by a cyberattack, and Iran’s attempt that same month to hack into Israel’s water supply to over-chlorinate it and poison Israelis.
And this is by no means a comprehensive list.
But Israel was much more ambiguous about the past operations – even about the Saviz attack that happened only last week. Now, it’s at least partly coming out of the shadows.
The timing of when Israel decided to be more open about its actions – with leaks to the local press and thinly veiled hints from Netanyahu and Kohavi – sends a message to the Biden administration that US presidents may come and go, but Israel will continue to act to defend itself.
Regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office and whether he has other plans, like to rejoin an agreement that Israel views as deeply flawed to the point of being dangerous, Israel does not intend to stand idly by while Iran moves towards getting a nuclear weapon.
Or as Netanyahu said on Holocaust Remembrance Day last week: “A nuclear agreement with Iran is again on the table, but history has taught us that agreements like this with extremist regimes are [worthless]. To our best friends I say: an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction – an agreement like this will not bind us.
“Today we have a state, we have the power to defend ourselves and we have the natural and full right as the sovereign state of the Jewish people to protect ourselves from our enemies,” Netanyahu said.