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- An important Iranian nuclear facility was damaged in a fire on Thursday that appears to have been the result of sabotage.
- A previously unknown group calling itself the “Homeland Cheetahs,” apparently a dissident group, claimed responsibility for the incident.
- The incident, which happened at Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility, occurred amid historic tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program.
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An Iranian nuclear facility appears to have been the target of sabotage, and a previously unknown, self-declared dissident group calling itself the “Homeland Cheetahs” claimed responsibility, the New York Times and BBC News reported on Thursday.
A fire on Thursday dealt extensive damage to a building at the nuclear complex at Natanz, Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility.
An unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence official told the Times the blast was the result of an explosive placed in part of the facility where centrifuges are balanced before going into operation. Centrifuges are tube-shaped machines that help enrich uranium.
Though sabotage is suspected, it’s also possible the explosion on Thursday was an accident. Given the complex is not known to hold combustible materials that could lead to that type of blast, however, experts cautioned against accepting either conclusion too soon.
David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told the Times that the assembly facility “wouldn’t be prone to these kinds of accidents.”
“They get subcomponents and put them together. You wouldn’t have a lot of flammable liquids. The assembly operations are not dangerous per se,” Albright said. “It seems like it could be sabotage. It’s a high-value site for the Iranians. It’s a very important building.”
The Atomic Energy Agency of Iran (AEOI) acknowledged there was an incident at the facility but did not deem it sabotage. AEOI spokesman Behruz Kamalvandi said there was an incident in “one of the industrial sheds under construction.” No fatalities were reported and no concerns were raised about radioactive contamination.
A group calling itself the “Homeland Cheetahs” sent a statement to BBC Persian journalists before the AEOI publicly announced the incident. The previously unknown group described itself as an “underground opposition with Iran’s security apparatus,” and claimed it attacked the building. Very little is known about the group, including whether it genuinely exists.
The building that was damaged is working on advanced centrifuges that allow for more rapid uranium enrichment.
The incident came months after President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East.
The Trump administration has been hammering Iran with sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign designed to pressure Tehran into negotiating a more stringent version of the nuclear deal the president pulled the US out of in May 2018. As part of the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its number of centrifuges by two-thirds. It also agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% and limit uranium enrichment to 3.67%.
Iran has insisted that it’s nuclear development is solely for civilian purposes, but the US and Israeli governments have repeatedly expressed skepticism, which is part of what inspired Trump to withdraw the US from the Iranian nuclear deal. With that said, the UN’s nuclear watchdog continuously found Iran to be in compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord, which was designed to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, including well after Trump withdrew the US from the deal.
Trump’s decision to pull away from the deal, which was orchestrated by the Obama administration, was controversial and met with criticism from US allies. The decision raised tensions between Washington and Tehran to historic heights, and led Iran to begin stepping away from the stipulations of the landmark pact.
Following Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani in early January, Iran announced it would no longer comply with any of the deal’s limitations on its nuclear program, including restrictions on uranium enrichment, its amount of stockpiled uranium, and research and development.
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as recently as Tuesday warned the United Nations Security Council about Iran’s centrifuge work.
As he pushed for the extension of an arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October, Pompeo said Iran is “accumulating dangerous knowledge”
“Late last year Iran announced that its scientists were working on a new centrifuge – the IR-9 – that would allow Tehran to enrich uranium up to 50 times faster than the IR-1 centrifuges allowed under the [2015 nuclear deal],” Pompeo said before calling on the council to hold Iran “accountable.”
Thursday’s incident came less than a week after an explosion close to the Parchin military complex. Iranian authorities dismissed the incident as a gas explosion at the base. But satellite photographs showed the blast occurred at a missile production facility near Parchin, the New York Times reported.