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The Curious Case of the Exploding Iranian Nuclear Site

Iran now admits that a fire at the Natanz nuclear site destroyed a centrifuge assembly center, prompting speculation of outside interference.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Iranian flags fly along the highway on June 3, 2014 in Natanz, Iran.
Iranian flags fly along the highway on June 3, 2014 in Natanz, Iran. John Moore / Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Iran says an explosion damaged a nuclear centrifuge site, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to name a new cabinet, the Dominican Republic has a new president, and what to watch in the world this week.

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Iran Nuclear Program Sees Another Centrifuge Sabotage

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Iran says an explosion damaged a nuclear centrifuge site, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to name a new cabinet, the Dominican Republic has a new president, and what to watch in the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Iran Nuclear Program Sees Another Centrifuge Sabotage

Iranian officials announced on Sunday that fire damaged “an industrial shed” at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility that was in fact a new site for assembling centrifuges. Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency, said the destruction would “possibly cause a delay in development and production of advanced centrifuge machines in the medium term.”

Speculation surrounding foreign interference has grown in recent weeks after a string of fires and explosions across Iran. Officials have played down some of the incidents as gas leaks gone wrong, but on Sunday the New York Times reported that the Natanz centrifuge site was destroyed using a bomb planted by Israel, citing a Middle Eastern intelligence official.

When asked about the incident by Israeli media on Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was circumspect. “Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us,” Gantz said. “All those systems are complex, they have very high safety constraints and I’m not sure they always know how to maintain them.”

From bad to worse. The setback for Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is peaceful, adds to more bad news as the country struggles to handle its resurgent coronavirus outbreak, which appeared to have subsided after a lockdown but has spread since the economy began reopening in late April. On Sunday, Iran’s health ministry reported its highest one-day death toll of the pandemic so far, with 163 deaths. Iran has now mandated mask-wearing indoors, whereas before it had only been a recommendation.

Zarif on the ropes. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was heckled as a liar by members of Iran’s new parliament as he delivered his first remarks to the recently elected body. Zarif was attempting to make the case for supporting the 2015 nuclear deal with Western nations and argued that last week’s U.N. Security Council meeting showed how isolated the United States is on the issue.

Maximum pressure, minimum results? Writing in Foreign Policy on July 2, Sina Toossi argued that the U.S. approach of the last three and a half years has only served to weaken moderates while emboldening hardliners. “Trump is mistaken if he believes “maximum pressure” is getting him closer to a deal with Iran,” Toossi wrote. “The policy is not leading to Iran’s capitulation or collapse, but entrenching U.S.-Iran hostilities and keeping the United States perennially at the cusp of war in the Middle East.”

What We’re Following Today

Macron to name new cabinet. French President Emmanual Macron is expected to unveil a new cabinet this week, after his party’s lackluster results in recent local elections suggested dissatisfaction with his rule has not abated. Macron appointed a new prime minister—Jean Castex—last week after the popular outgoing premier, Édouard Phillipe, left the post to begin a second term as mayor of Le Havre. Some analysts see Philippe as a potential rival to Macron in 2022, given his center-right roots and high approval ratings.

Croatia’s HDZ holds on. Croatia’s ruling party, the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), looks to have won the country’s parliamentary elections, according to early reports. With 90 percent of votes counted, HDZ had won 66 seats out of 151 in Croatian parliament, making a coaltion government likely. Croatia’s Social Democratic Party came in second place, with 41 seats, while the Euroskeptic Homeland Movement won at least 16 seats. At 46 percent, Sundays election had the lowest turnout since Croatia declared independence in 1991.

At least 166 killed in Ethiopia unrest. Protests over the killing of activist and singer Hachalu Hundessa led to at least 166 deaths, Ethiopian authorities have reported. The number is more than double what the government originally announced, and could rise further if those being treated for injuries do not recover. Hachalu was shot to death in late June. It’s not yet known who is responsible  for the attack.

Dominican Republic votes for new president. Luis Abinader is expected to win the presidency the Dominican Republic, breaking a 16 year grip on power by the ruling Dominican Liberation Party. Preliminary counts show Abinader with 53 percent of the vote and his rival Gonzalo Castillo with 37 percent. Abinader is an economist known for his work in the country’s tourist industry and has not held political office before. He contracted the coronavirus during his presidential campaign and has since recovered.

Myanmar rescue enters fifth day. Rescue operations are ongoing in Mandalay, Myanmar, following a landslide at a jade mine where 170 people have been found dead so far. Global Witness, a human rights group, has condemned Myanmar’s leadership for the disaster, saying it is a “damning indictment of the government’s failure to curb reckless and irresponsible mining practices.” 

Keep an Eye On

Coronavirus in the air. A forthcoming paper signed by 239 scientists calls for a revision in coronavirus prevention guidelines because of evidence showing the virus can be spread indoors through tiny droplets in the air. The scientists are hoping the paper’s publication can pressure the World Health Organization, whose guidelines do not yet warn about the airborne nature of the virus beyond water droplets ejected from a person’s mouth. Jose Jimenez, a chemist at the University of Colorado who has signed the paper, said the group’s goal is not to undercut the WHO. “We only want it to adapt its guidance on aerosol transmission to the increasing evidence,” he told the Washington Post.

Bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia. Local authorities in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia have issued a warning for plague prevention after a case of bubonic plague was discovered in the city of Banyannur. The public are being advised to report sightings of sick or dead marmots, which have been known to spread the disease. According to the WHO, between 1,000 and 2,000 cases of the plague are recorded every year.

In November 2019, one month before the world became aware of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Laurie Garrett wrote about a suspected plague outbreak in China in Foreign Policy—and warned that the Chinese government’s propensity to cover up outbreaks could be more dangerous than the disease itself.

The World This Week

On Wednesday, July 8, U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House—only the second visit from a head of state since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Also on July 8, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, will deliver remarks at the Brookings Institution’s EU Defense Washington Forum, held via webcast.

July 8 is also the deadline for candidates to submit their application to be the next World Trade Organization director-general. Incumbent Robert Azevêdo leaves the post on August 31.

On Friday, July 10, Singapore holds parliamentary elections. The People’s Action Party—in power since independence in 1965—is widely expected to win.

On Sunday, July 12, Poland’s runoff presidential vote will take place between incumbent Andrzej Duda and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski. According to polls, the race is too close to call.

Odds and Ends

It was a Fourth of July to forget for the hundreds of far-right protesters, militia members, and biker groups that descended on Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Saturday to prevent an an imagined flag-burning protest that now appears the work of an online troll. Word of the July 4 event had spread on Facebook after a page called Left Behind USA, and its anonymous owner, announced it in June. The Facebook posts bordered on the absurd, claiming organizers would “be giving away free small flags to children to safely throw into the fire” and provide “antifa face paint.” The counterprotesters, some armed, arrived on Saturday to learn the flag burning (and face painting) was nowhere to be found. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a hoax or not,” one biker from West Virginia noted. “They made a threat, and if we don’t make our voices heard, it’ll make it seem like it’s okay.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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