Nuclear Sabotage Could Be What Iran Needed
This week’s attack on an Iranian enrichment facility has improved the country’s negotiating position.
The sabotage operation against Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility in Natanz on April 11 was the latest apparent Israeli effort to set back Tehran’s nuclear work. In July 2020, an advanced centrifuge production plant in the same complex sustained a powerful blast using an explosive bomb that caused significant damage to the aboveground facility and prompted Iranian authorities to build an underground replacement. The explosion was followed by the high-profile assassination in November of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the chief architect of Iran’s atomic energy program.
Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the chair of the Iranian parliamentary energy committee who himself survived an assassination attempt in 2010, described the recent attack as a “very pretty scheme” and a “complex feat” involving a blast that knocked out the enrichment facility’s standard power grid as well as its battery-based emergency system used to generate electricity for centrifuges. Echoing the indignant political mood among hard-liners in Tehran, Alireza Zakani, the conservative head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, espoused that an “appropriate response” would be “enrichment to above 60 percent purity”—usually intended for powering nuclear submarines and above any level Iran has enriched at before.
Fiery protestations and promises notwithstanding, the government’s first official reaction was to downplay the blackout, suggesting that Iran has likely decided to keep calm and carry on with the nuclear negotiations underway in Vienna but probably with greater demands for concessions and expectations of compensation deployed for increased leverage. While Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), condemned the attack as an act of “nuclear terrorism,” AEOI spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi publicly confirmed the same day that the incident had not caused human casualties or radioactive fallout. To erase any doubt about Tehran’s feared change of stance on the nuclear talks in response to sabotage in Natanz, presidential spokesperson Ali Rabiei told reporters on Tuesday that Iran “will not fall in the trap” of Israel’s “provocative operation.” He also disputed media claims of a cyberattack as the main cause of the incident, adding that the perpetrator has been identified and Iran’s retaliation for the attack will take place within Israeli territory.
Efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to calm political nerves coincided with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Tehran for consultations with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who took a similar position vis-à-vis renewed nuclear negotiations. “Israelis thought this assault would weaken our hand in the Vienna negotiations, but on the contrary it will strengthen our position,” Zarif said during a joint press conference with Lavrov on Tuesday.
The sabotage was not systematic enough to upend Iran’s whole nuclear calculus or dissuade it from continuing to participate in multilateral nuclear talks with the United States. Tehran instead appears poised to leverage its victimhood status—earned through repeated Israeli operations against its atomic energy infrastructure—to reach its goal at the negotiating table of a full removal of sanctions, which under other circumstances might have seemed a maximalist demand that risked alienating Russia and China.
In other words, the Natanz attack has not only afforded Tehran a legitimate excuse to install more effective centrifuges for uranium enrichment without much political cost, but it can also tie Moscow’s as well as Beijing’s hands in terms of pressuring Iran into compromise during negotiations in Vienna. This particularly serves Iranian hard-liners’ domestic political interests ahead of presidential elections in June, guaranteeing them a relatively inevitable win no matter what policy line they push in terms of sanctions relief: If the Biden administration manages to lift all Trump-era sanctions at once—as Tehran has demanded—hard-liners who propounded this maximalist provision in the first place will emerge politically triumphant at home, and if Washington fails to do so for whatever reason, hard-liners can still legitimately stick to the same demand to stymie the Rouhani team’s nuclear talks, beat moderates at the ballot box, and then resume pursuing diplomacy for sanctions relief after taking control of the presidency.
Against this backdrop, it was not surprising that Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator in Vienna, officially announced Tehran’s plans for uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity on Tuesday, according to Iranian media reports. Iran notified Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it would start 60 percent enrichment to meet its medical needs and produce radioisotope drugs. Simultaneously, a cargo vessel owned by the Israeli firm Ray Shipping was reportedly targeted by Iran near the Emirati port of Fujairah on Tuesday.
Regardless of how Israel’s sabotage operation against the underground enrichment facility in Natanz affects renewal negotiations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna, the starkest strategic consequence is the further alignment of Iran’s otherwise discontented public with the Iranian government on nuclear policy. This alignment, forged on the back of common opposition to Iran’s foreign foes, can go beyond tactics of nuclear diplomacy and contribute to producing unprecedented collective support for the bomb as a necessary ultimate deterrent.
Such an option remains unlikely. But it may not remain implausible if diplomatic efforts fail to reverse the U.S. maximum pressure campaign of economic asphyxiation against Iran. If the JCPOA collapses, whether from U.S. intransigence or Israeli aggression, there will remain no plausible way to contain Tehran’s nuclear program other than war. And if war breaks out, there will be no plausible guarantee that Iran won’t dash for the bomb as a consequence.
Maysam Behravesh is a research associate at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Lund University, Sweden. He was an intelligence analyst and foreign policy advisor with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) from 2008 to 2010. Twitter: @MaysamBehravesh