Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?

Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?
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Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi addresses workers during a visit to the Natanz nuclear research site, south of Tehran. The showpiece facility was crippled by an explosion on July 2. (AFP)
Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?
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Updated 13 July 2020

Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?

Explosions in Iran: Isolated incidents or acts of sabotage?
  • Regime finding it hard to explain away string of blasts at weapons facilities as coincidence
  • Incident in Natanz nuclear research facility may have set back Tehran’s nuclear ambitions by up to two years

LONDON: Explosions in western Tehran resulting in power outage. A fire at a ballistic-missile production facility. A deadly blast at a medical clinic in the Iranian capital’s north. Huge floods at one of the country’s most important shipping hubs.

These apparently isolated recent incidents, mainly at military, nuclear, and industrial facilities, have been either subjected to cover-ups by Tehran or explained away as unfortunate accidents.

But when a blast on July 2 crippled the Natanz nuclear research facility in Isfahan, Iran was forced to come clean and admit that the showpiece of its nuclear-enrichment program was the target of an act of sabotage.

Experts have told Arab News that this admission has thrown into question the whole series of events. They said that what initially could have been a string of ill-timed separate incidents was starting to look like a coordinated campaign of cyber and psychological warfare. The real questions, to them, were: How impactful has the campaign been, who is behind it, and how will the regime respond?

Olli Heinonen, a senior adviser on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that whoever was responsible for the Natanz sabotage was sending Iran a message.

The attack, he added, would not have “been possible without detailed knowledge on the design and operations of the workshops.”

This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News shows an Iranian military satellite -- dubbed the Nour -- which the Revolutionary Guards said on April 22, 2020 was launched. (AFP/Iran's Revolutionary Guard via SEPAH NEWS/File Photo)

This “sends a stern message to the nuclear and missile programs: Their operations and goals are not secret.”

Whoever was responsible, Heinonen said, may not be finished yet. “The hitting of the assembly plant of the advanced centrifuges is likely a warning shot only.”

As if on cue, electricity reportedly got cut off after a large explosion hit a suburb west of Tehran on Friday in a missile facility of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iranian officials denied the report. Another mysterious explosion had been reported just three days before, on July 7, at a factory south of Tehran.

While the full picture has yet to emerge of the damage caused by the blast at Natanz, it may have set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by up to two years.

The 2015 nuclear deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, reached between Iran and six world powers, allowed only enrichment of uranium at Natanz with just over 5,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. But Iran has installed new cascades of advanced centrifuges after US President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reinstated economic sanctions.

Iran, which said it would not negotiate as long as the sanctions remained in place, has repeatedly threatened to continue building up what it calls a defensive missile capability run by the IRGC.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said: “It is difficult to interpret recent incidents at Iran’s nuclear facilities as anything but coherent and sustained acts of sabotage conducted by state actors.”

Referring to the Natanz blast and the other explosions and fires, he added: “There is a pattern.” This pattern stretched back years, and has used cyberattacks, sabotage, and targeting of scientists to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This picture made available by the Iranian armed forces office on June 18, 2020 shows a missile being fired out to sea from a mobile launch vehicle reportedly on the southern coast of Iran along the Gulf of Oman during a military exercise. (AFP/File Photo)

As for the culprit, Alfoneh believes it “makes very good sense” that Tehran’s arch-nemesis Israel could be behind the attacks on nuclear and missile facilities. Israeli statements, he said, “give further credence to these allegations.”

Israel is just one of a number of enemies of the regime who may now be targeting Iran, Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, told Arab News.

His understanding of the situation, largely in line with Alfoneh’s assessment, is that the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility was most likely “a cyberattack by Israel.”

However, he said: “Were all of the attacks by Israel? That is the question we’re not clear on, and that’s where it gets interesting.”

Karasik pointed out that Tehran also had domestic adversaries with their own grouses. “There’s messaging that a group attached to the (Iranian ethnic minority) Baluch people could be responsible. With Baluch sentiments inflamed, the ethnic minority have at times been used by outside forces as another way to undermine Iran,” he added.

A number of attacks targeting the IRGC personnel and military infrastructure have been claimed by Baluch groups in the past few years. They have not, however, come forward to claim responsibility for the latest series of incidents in Iran.

“Overall, we can say someone is using various tactics — external cyberattacks, internal sabotage — to hit Iran right now, and it’s part of a larger pattern,” Karasik said.

Much of the discussion surrounding the series of attacks has revolved around cyber warfare. Karasik believes this is a central part of the campaign by whoever is targeting the Islamic Republic.

Someone is telling Iran: We know where you live, we know your weak spots, and if we need to hurt you, we can.

Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at Chatham House

“To cause explosions, to make something stop operating — this is very sophisticated in terms of cyber warfare. It’s one thing to shut down a street or a factory; it’s another issue to actually detonate something,” he added.

The technological sophistication points to Israeli cyber sabotage. Israel has long employed cyberattacks as a means of targeting Iran’s nuclear and military capacity, famously unleashing the Stuxnet attack which set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by up to five years.

The emerging consensus among Iran watchers such as Karasik is that Israel was likely responsible for some, if not all, of the recent major disruptions that have struck Iran. The question then, is how Tehran will respond?

Tehran was patient and opportunistic, Karasik said, but “there is a danger that the tail may wag the dog.” As Tehran faced more domestic pressure and its legitimacy in the eyes of the people eroded further, the only way to prove its strength could be to lash out.

This handout satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows the Konarak support ship before the accident in the port of Konarak, Iran on April 30, 2020. (AFP/Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies/File Photo)

However, one of the advantages of using cyber warfare and other such clandestine means of undermining Iran, was that the attacks had plausible deniability, Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at Chatham House, told Arab News.

“It’s hard to definitively prove who was behind the attacks, so it does not force Iran to respond to preserve its legitimacy and save face,” he added.

But he warned that it was a “highly volatile” situation. “There is a danger of miscalculation — you’re guessing other peoples’ thresholds for retaliation and it’s easy to miscalculate. It’s a risky game.”

The strategy being employed against Iran, Heinonen, Mekelberg, and Karasik all agreed, was a psychological one. An outside power — which many suspect to be Israel — was sending a message to Iran.

A handout picture released by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization on November 4, 2019, shows shows the atomic enrichment facilities Natanz nuclear power plant, some 300 kilometres south of capital Tehran. (AFP/Atomic Energy Organization of Iran/File Photo)

Karasik said that someone had been “hammering away at specific targets related to Iran’s national security, creating an explosion here, a fire there. That has a psychological impact.”

Mekelberg added: “Someone is telling Iran: We know where you live, we know where your weak spots are, and if we need to hurt you, we can. It’s a show of force.”

Iran is upgrading its ballistic missile arsenal and investing heavily in obtaining nuclear weapons. It should come as no surprise then, that as its posture becomes ever more aggressive, its adversaries are sending a clear message that they will not stand for a nuclear-armed Iran.

The campaign of cyberattacks and sabotage is making that position abundantly clear.



Egypt, Russia to resume flights between both countries

Egypt, Russia to resume flights between both countries
Updated 52 sec ago

Egypt, Russia to resume flights between both countries

Egypt, Russia to resume flights between both countries

DUBAI: Egypt and Russia have agreed to resume flights between the two countries after a five-year suspension, including Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, Presidency’s website reported.
The decision comes after Egypt maintained security standards for its air travel and both sides reached agreements on other undisclosed issues.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi welcomed the resumption of flights between the two countries in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
From his side, Putin expressed his country’s keenness to enhance various aspects of the bilateral relations with Egypt, praising the extended partnership between the two countries.
He also affirmed that Russia was counting on Egypt’s pivotal role in stabilizing its entire regional environment.
The report added that the call also covered discussions about developments in Libya and the Renaissance Dam file. It also covered issues of bilateral cooperation in investment, especially regarding the economic zone of the Suez Canal Corridor.
Russian aviation and tourism flights to Egypt were suspended after a Russian passenger plane crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31, 2015, with 224 people on board.

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes
Updated 52 min 37 sec ago

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes
  • The violence flared outside one of the entrances to the walled Old City, after police had barred access to some areas where Palestinians usually gather
  • Tensions were fueled by the arrival of far-right Jews at the end of a march during which they harassed Palestinians and chanted “death to Arabs”

JERUSALEM: Over 100 Palestinians and 20 Israeli police were wounded in overnight clashes in annexed east Jerusalem, authorities said Friday, as tensions mount over a ban on gatherings and videos of attacks on youths.
The violence flared outside one of the entrances to the walled Old City, after police had barred access to some areas where Palestinians usually gather in large numbers during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Tensions were fueled by the arrival of far-right Jews at the end of a march during which they harassed Palestinians and chanted “death to Arabs.”
There have been nightly disturbances in the area since the start of Ramadan on April 13, with Palestinians outraged over police blocking access to the promenade around the walls, a popular gathering place after the end of the daytime Ramadan fast.
Police said that after night prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City “hundreds of rioters began disrupting the order violently, including throwing stones and objects at forces.”
Stun grenades were fired and water cannon deployed to disperse the “rioters” and force them toward less central areas of east Jerusalem, police said.
Police said officers attempted to “distinguish between them and those who finished prayers” and were not involved in the events.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said on Friday it had treated at least 105 people, with about 20 of them hospitalized.
Israeli police said 20 officers were injured, three of whom were taken to hospital.
“It was like a war zone; it was dangerous,” a Palestinian who was near the clashes outside the Old City told AFP. “That’s why I left the place.”
Tensions have been high in Jerusalem after a series of videos posted online in recent days showing young Arabs attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jewish extremists taking to the street to bully Arabs in nightly confrontations.
On Thursday night, the Israeli extreme right group Lehava organized a march ending opposite the Old City attended by hundreds to protest the anti-Jewish violence.
Police erected barriers to keep them from entering the mainly Arab location.
The Palestinian presidency meanwhile condemned “the growing incitement by extremist far-right Israeli settler groups advocating for the killing of Arabs, which in recent days manifested in a wave of attacks against Palestinian civilians in the Old City.”
A statement late Thursday on the official Palestinian news agency Wafa urged the international community to protect Palestinians from the “settler” attacks, which it alleged were encouraged by the Israeli government.
Videos on social media also showed Palestinians attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews in the early hours of Friday, with reports of Israeli vehicles being stoned in and near east Jerusalem.
Police reported “a number of incidents overnight in which civilians were attacked, some of whom needed medical treatment.”
Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion said he tried to cancel the Lehava march, but police told him it was legal, noting that “dozens” of Jews who attacked Arabs had been arrested in the past two weeks.
Speaking with public broadcaster Kan, Lion said he was in talks with leaders of the Palestinian east Jerusalem neighborhoods “to end this pointless violence.”
More than 50 people detained overnight were taken for a remand hearing on Friday morning, a statement from police said.

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village
Updated 23 April 2021

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

ADEN: Houthi "terrorists" have abducted three civilians from the Yemeni village of "Beit Al-Jabr" in the governorate of Dhamar, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.

The Houthis took their victims to a detention center in Jabal Al-Sharq district, in the same governorate controlled by the Iran-backed group, the report said.

The raiders claimed they were taking the victims under the pretext of setting up a funeral council, but the official Yemeni News Agency (Saba) quoted a local source as saying there was no such plan to establish a funeral council, SPA said.

According to the Saba source, the storming of the village was consistent with the "systematic policy of harassment" that the Houthi militia follows in dealing with the population in all areas under their control, SPA added.

Houthis earlier abducted Yemeni model and actress Entesar Al-Hammadi and two of her friends on Feb. 20 as they were traveling to shoot a TV drama series.

On Thursday, the captors reportedly placed Al-Hammadi in solitary confinement as punishment for her protest against her initial incarceration and prison conditions.

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
Updated 23 April 2021

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
  • Envoy Tor Wennesland said the road will not be easy, and called on all sides to protect voting rights
  • Central Elections Commission praised for “professionalism and integrity” and its efforts to ensure safe voting during pandemic.

NEW YORK: The successful staging of credible Palestinian elections on May 22 is a crucial step toward unity and guaranteeing the legitimacy of national institutions, the UN Security Council heard on Thursday.
Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told council members that the elections, along with Israeli efforts to form a coalition government, will have a “significant implication for the prospects for advancing peace in the months ahead,” and called on the international community to provide support.
“Expectations for the holding of elections in Palestine are high and come after a long wait of almost 15 years … a growing number of young people are expected to participate in shaping their political future, and have the opportunity to vote for the first time,” Wennesland said.
“These elections should also pave the way to uniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate national authority, which would be an important step toward reconciliation and could advance Middle East peace.”
He praised the Palestinian Central Elections Commission for its “professionalism and integrity, enhancing trust in the electoral process,” singling out in particular the committee’s efforts to create a safe voting environment during the pandemic.
He also underscored the importance of the role of election observers in ensuring that the results of “credible and transparent” elections are respected.
“All sides must work toward protecting the right of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, to participate in credible and inclusive Palestinian elections, as well as to stand for election free from intimidation,” said Wennesland.
He urged all those involved in the process “to refrain from any arrest, detention or interrogation based on freedom of opinion, expression or association.”
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose “a formidable threat” throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, further exacerbating an already dire social and economic situation, Wennesland said as he called for vaccination efforts to be stepped up and for more vaccine doses to be made available.
The Biden administration this month announced its plans for resuming US funding for the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which was halted in August 2018 by President Donald Trump. Wennesland welcomed the move by Washington and called on all UN members to recommit to supporting the agency, whose “services are not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees but are also critical for stability throughout the region.”
The envoy repeated his call for Israel to halt the demolition and seizure of Palestinian properties and to allow the Palestinian people “to develop their communities.”
Denouncing the “daily violence” that has resulted in more arrests, injuries and deaths, Wennesland called on all sides “to de-escalate tensions and maintain calm.”
He added: “I underscore that all perpetrators of violence must be held accountable and swiftly brought to justice. I reiterate that Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
“Particular care should be taken to protect children from any form of violence. In addition, the indiscriminate launching of rockets toward Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately.”

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport
Updated 23 April 2021

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

BAGHDAD: At least three rockets hit near Baghdad international airport late Thursday, the Iraqi military said.
A total of eight missiles were fired and three landed near the airport complex, the statement said. It did not detail whether the attack caused casualties.
The rockets struck areas known to contain Iraqi security forces. One hit close to a central prison, the second near an academy of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, and a third near the headquarters of the Rapid Response regiment.
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks. US officials have previously blamed Iran-backed militia groups.
It is the latest in a string of rocket attacks that have primarily targeted American installations in Iraq in recent weeks. On Sunday, multiple rockets hit an Iraqi air base just north of Baghdad, wounding two Iraqi security personnel.
Last month, a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops and contractors was hit by 10 rockets. One contractor was killed.
Calls from mainly Shiite leaders have grown to oust US troops from Iraq after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020.
Strategic talks between the US and Iraq have focused on the future of US troop presence in the country.