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Setback for Iran’s Nuclear Program After Mystery Fire at Centrifuge Assembly Site


This photo released July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 322 kilometers south of Tehran, Iran.

New details of an Iranian nuclear facility damaged in a mysterious fire suggest Thursday’s incident is a much greater setback to Iran’s nuclear ambitions than Tehran has publicly admitted.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security identified the facility as a centrifuge assembly workshop at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant in central Iran’s Isfahan province.

In a series of Thursday tweets, the Institute showed how it used a photo of the fire-damaged building released earlier in the day by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to geo-locate the site on Google Earth satellite images. The research group said it had previously identified the building as a centrifuge assembly workshop in 2017.

As well as releasing the photo of the damaged building, an AEOI spokesman gave an interview to an Iranian state TV reporter at the site, downplaying the fire as an “incident” that had done some damage to an above-ground workshop that he said was under construction. Behrouz Kamalvandi also said there had been no interruption to enrichment work involving centrifuges spinning underground.

“It took the Iranians a long time to build this workshop,” Institute researcher Sarah Burkhard told VOA Persian in an interview. “Its construction started in 2012 and they only got to a point where they could start operations there in 2018,” she said.

A top Iranian security spokesman said Friday that the cause of the fire was known but would not be made public at this time because of security reasons. The semiofficial Tasnim news agency quoted Keyvan Khosravi, the spokesman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying the “cause and manner of the accident will be announced at the appropriate time.”

State TV network IRIB was given a tour of the facility, officially named the “Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center,” just before it opened in June 2018. A video of the tour posted on YouTube showed an IRIB reporter doing a walk-through of the site, revealing what appeared to be brand-new machinery in several small and large rooms.

“You can see that it was a very clean facility. And that's important. It needs to be very clean,” Burkhard said. “You also can see that Iran was proud of this site.”

The AEOI’s photo of the aftermath of the fire, which it said happened at 2 a.m. Thursday local time, showed extensive damage to one end of the workshop, with roof panels charred, exterior walls cracked and doors ripped from their hinges, apparently from the force of an explosion.

“The equipment inside the workshop was meant to be used for making precision measurements in assembling advanced centrifuges that are sensitive machines and difficult to build, because you have to ensure that they are identical,” Burkhard said. “We think the centrifuge equipment likely is not easily replaceable, because the components would be subject to international export controls,” she added.

Under a 2015 deal between Iran and world powers to curb Iranian activities that could be used to make nuclear weapons, a Joint Commission was set up to monitor Tehran’s procurement of certain nuclear and dual-use items to ensure that its nuclear work stayed within agreed limits.

The United States also sanctioned Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA) in 2011 and since then has further sanctioned international companies in TESA’s procurement network.

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, saying it was not tough enough on Tehran, and began unilaterally imposing sanctions aimed at pressuring Iranian leaders to stop a range of perceived malign behaviors. Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons, has vowed to resist the U.S. sanctions, which have weakened its economy. Tehran also has been violating a series of limits on its nuclear activities since last year to try to pressure the 2015 deal’s remaining signatories to compensate it for the U.S. sanctions.

One of Iran’s violations has involved research and development of advanced centrifuges at facilities such as the fire-damaged workshop at Natanz. The Institute for Science and International Security is unaware of any other similar workshop in Iran, Burkhard said.

“The fire was a significant setback for Iran's advanced centrifuge production,” she said.

Burkhard also said the damage to the facility was so large that it did not appear to have been caused by an industrial accident. Her colleague David Albright told The New York Times that he believed it was an act of sabotage, because the assembly of centrifuge components in the workshop would have involved few flammable liquids and was unlikely to be dangerous.

After downplaying the incident, Iranian state news agency IRNA issued a warning later Thursday, saying “if there are signs of hostile countries crossing Iran's red lines in any way, especially the Zionist regime (Israel) and the United States, Iran's strategy to confront the new situation must be fundamentally reconsidered.”

In an email to VOA Persian, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Iran analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu said the Iranian warning suggests that Tehran thinks its earlier assertions about the fire being an “accident” were not convincing enough for many Iranians who suspect foreign involvement.

The U.S. State Department said it was monitoring reports of the fire. In a statement sent to VOA, it said the incident “serves as another reminder of how the Iranian regime continues to prioritize its misguided nuclear program to the detriment of the Iranian people's needs.”

“Iranian officials have a good reason to downplay foreign acts of sabotage on their soil, as it would expose them as incompetent,” Taleblu said. “How Iran responds to this, at home and abroad, will determine a great deal about the origins of the fire.”

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Barry Newhouse contributed.