Dr Mehmood-ul-Hassan Khan
REGIONAL security has now become hostage of Iranian nuclear vulnerabilities because of a series of recent explosions/blasts at its various nuclear installations. Blast near military complex outside Tehran on June 26 drew global attention. There have been three major explosions in Iran in the last three weeks the latest took place in the west of capital Tehran. The first two explosions had taken place at Khojir, Iran’s largest missile production facility, and at Natanz nuclear base, which contains its centrifuge assembly. The three explosions of Iran near key strategic facilities have left the civilian and military leaderships unnerved.
Regional countries showed their serious concerns about spillover repercussions of these blasts at various sites of Iranian nuclear program. Even international power brokers and regulatory bodies raised valid questions about its sub-standard security arrangements at its various nuclear installations. Despite Iranian cagey actions and statements, oddments of truth have gradually emerged. It seems that the explosion is yet another embarrassment for its government and posed serious threat to all the regional countries. Natanz hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. There, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium. Natanz was at the centre of a dispute last year as Iranian officials refused to allow an IAEA inspector into the facility in October after allegedly testing positive for suspected traces of explosive nitrates. In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz, which Iran said would house centrifuges for its nuclear program, buried under some 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete.
Now according to reliable resources (July 2020) Natanz today hosts the Iranian main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium. The IAEA (2020) says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5%above the terms of the nuclear deal but far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. Workers there also have conducted tests on advanced centrifuges, according to the IAEA. There are contradictory explanations being provided by Iran’s state authorities and independent analysts who study its nuclear and military activities. For instance, a Middle-Eastern intelligence official reportedly claimed that Israel might be behind the incident at Natanz, but Iranian state authorities have not revealed the results of the investigation looking into the causes of the explosion.
Another explosion took place at the Khojir missile production complex in eastern Tehran, and not at Parchin as suggested in some Iranian media outlets. The blast shook homes, rattled windows and lit up the horizon in the Alborz mountains. State TV later aired a segment from what it described as the site of the blast. While Iranian authorities claimed that the blast occurred due to a gas tank explosion, subsequent satellite imagery revealed that the missile facility had a network of underground tunnels. Khojir has various underground facilities and tunnels whose exact function still remains unknown. Iranian spokesman hided the true nature of the Khojir military installment and its network of underground tunnels and termed it minor incident covering its past nuclear weapons program.
The world has witnessed a tit-for-tat exchange of cyber-attacks between Israel and Iran in recent weeks, and the Khojir explosion could very well be the latest front in the ongoing covert battle between the two sworn enemies. On its part, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) sought to downplay the fire, calling it an incident that only affected an under-construction, industrial shed. However, both Kamalvandi and Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi rushed after the fire to Natanz, a facility earlier targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus and built underground to withstand enemy airstrikes. Being prominent regional expert of economics/geopolitics, I fear that a series of explosions, blasts and dangerous incidents of fire at various sites of Iranian nuclear program may rekindle wider tensions across the Middle East, similar to the escalation in January after a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian General in Baghdad and Tehran launched a retaliatory ballistic missile attack targeting American forces in Iraq.
I personally think Iran will wait till the result of next presidential election of the US to respond it. According to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran currently possesses over 1,500 kg of enriched uranium, which is sufficient for enrichment to military level of one nuclear device. On 19 June, at the most recent meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, a resolution was passed, sponsored by the three European signatories of the nuclear agreement: the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The resolution demands that Iran allow IAEA inspectors to enter two sites suspected for nuclear activity. On the other hand, Washington is spearheading an effort in the UN Security Council to extend the embargo on sales of weaponry to and from Iran. This embargo is due to expire in October 2020 as part of the understandings between Iran and the P5+1 in the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which anchored the agreement.
Being prominent regional expert of economics/geopolitics, I fear that Tehran might consider different options i.e. to raise uranium enrichment to 20%, as was underway before the agreement, reducing its cooperation with the IAEA, either by abandoning the additional protocol, which Iran in any case accepted voluntarily but not yet ratified, or by imposing partial restrictions on the inspection in the framework of the nuclear agreement; and withdrawal from the NPT. A series of cyber-attacks, direct kinetic attacks against Israel and/or Saudi Arabia and/or American facilities in the region or speeding-up proxy wars and incidents of terrorism in the region and beyond might be an easy option available to Iranian regime. Regional countries mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already raised serious concerns about inappropriate security arrangements at Iranian nuclear and associated ballistic missile installations which would be dangerous to regional security, harmful to ecological balance and natural disaster. Moreover Iranian nuclear program has not been up to the mark of international transparency and openness which has now polluted “safe nuclear doctrine” which may increase new arms race in the region.
—The writer is Director, Geopolitics/Economics Member Board of Experts, CGSS.
Dr Mehmood-ul-Hassan Khan