Iran’s principal nuclear facility has suffered a major blackout, just as indirect talks with the US over a major nuclear deal were due to resume.
Iranian officials blamed Israel for an act of “sabotage” that knocked out the Natanz reactor, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accusing the country of “nuclear terrorism.”
Iran said that the Natanz facility was hit by an explosion that caused no casualties or any leaks of any radioactive material. It is the second such setback to hit the reactor in less than a year.
Speaking to state media, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, blamed “enemies of the country’s industrial and political progress, who aim to prevent the development of a thriving nuclear industry."
The incident comes just a week after the US agreed to hold indirect talks over a potential return to the 2015 nuclear deal and a lifting of sanctions. Former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Israel has not officially commented, but no domestic media censorship has been imposed on what Israeli media reported was a cyberattack. The public radio Kan cited intelligence sources that the attack was carried out by Mossad.
This is the third such incident at Natanz in a decade. In 2010 the Stuxnet virus took out the centrifuges of the reactor, while another explosion was reported last July.
A resumption of indirect talks in Vienna over the international nuclear deal is a big boost for Iran: its economy has suffered badly from the pandemic and years of sanctions.
Israel meanwhile has made it clear that it would keep pushing back any potential attempt by Iran to make an atomic bomb.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Israel’s intelligence services during a ceremony held with the country’s military leaders on Sunday, without directly commenting on the incident in Iran.
“The battle against Iran and its proxies and its nuclearisation is a massive task,” he said. “Today’s situation does not mean it would be the same tomorrow.”
“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished here in Israel, in this transition from complete helplessness that was unparalleled in the history of nations, to a world power that we have succeeded building here.”
So-called “moderates” in Iran currently lead the country’s government, but face a stiff battle to cling on to power in presidential elections due to take place later this year. Reaching an agreement with the US to ease some sanctions could play a major role in rallying Iranians behind them, and avoid ceding the presidency – just one of many competing power blocs in Iran – to their home rivals the “hardliners.”
“If they think our hand in the negotiations has been weakened, actually this cowardly act will strengthen our position in the talks,” Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said.