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  • Mohamed Abdulkahar

Cyberwarfare: The Attack on Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Site

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

On April 11th, the Natanz nuclear site witnessed an explosion that caused a power failure. Iran accused Israel of having carried out the attack, making it seem like it was a deliberate attempt at sabotaging the uranium enrichment site. Intelligence officials of the US and Israel confirmed there had been an Israeli involvement in the attack, but Israel neither confirmed nor denied the allegations.

This article will explore what exactly happened at the nuclear site, the Iranian-Israeli relations, how the international community responded, and what effects this setback has imposed on Iran’s nuclear program.

The attack

The attack destroyed thousands of machines that were used to refine nuclear material. Iran called the explosion an act of nuclear “terrorism”, and quickly blamed Israel for the attack. This explosion affected the power distribution network at Natanz. Therefore, the blackout caused by this incident heavily affected the enrichment plant. The explosion was caused by a targeted and organised cyberattack that caused “real-world damage” by having centrifuge controllers spin out of control.

A few days after the incident, Iranian state television had identified the suspect as Reza Karimi, a 43-year-old man who fled the scene hours before the incident took place. The television report showed an Interpol “red notice” that was seeking Karimi’s arrest, but the Interpol refused to comment. In addition, the report showed countries Karimi had visited, which were allegedly on the red notice. These countries include Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Qatar, Romania, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

In response to the attack, Iran began its uranium enrichment plan that would give 60% purity as opposed to the original 20%. This action led to elevated tensions in the Middle East and increased the animosity between Tehran and Tel Aviv. This increase in uranium enrichment also went against the Iranian nuclear deal, but still Iran continued with their plan.

The extent of the damage is still blurry. The state TV report said that there were thousands of damaged and destroyed centrifuges. However, there were no figures or images displayed to show the extent of the damage at the Natanz nuclear facility.


Why blame Israel?

The Israeli government is yet to confirm their involvement in orchestrating the attack. However, Israeli media reported that Israel did in fact plan the attack. In a statement to journalists, Netanyahu vowed that he would never let Iran have nuclear capabilities to “carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the proper response to Israel’s aggression would be to “take revenge” and that Israel will “receive its answer through its own path.” He didn’t elaborate any further.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif promised Natanz would have more advanced machinery to reach Iran’s 60% enriched uranium goal, and in a letter sent to the UN Security Council, he asked them to hold Israel accountable. Iran also delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) urging them to condemn the attack, but although the agency said they were aware of the reports about the attack, they did not elaborate.

This isn’t the first time Iran has been under attack. The 2010 Stuxnet computer virus also destroyed Iran’s centrifuges at Natanz. In July 2020, there was an explosion at their advanced centrifuge assembly plant. In November 2020, Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated, an incident where Israel was also accused of. So, were the Iranian-Israeli relations always this tense? The short answer is no.

Israeli PM Netanyahu and the cyber attack in Iran

Iranian-Israeli relations

Iran and Israel were on good terms for three decades until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Later, Iran had abandoned its recognition of the legitimacy of Israel and severed their diplomatic ties, but continued to have military cooperation since Iran turned to Israel for help in Iran’s war with Iraq.

In 1948, Iraq had been on a targeting spree of its Jewish community after Israel had declared its independence, causing many of them to flee to Israel. Iran had opened its doors for these Jewish citizens and served as a sanctuary for them. Although Iran had initially refused to recognise Israel as a legitimate state, it later recognised it in 1950. Their relations were “low-profile”, and Iran was the only country in the region to have sold oil to Israel. In addition, it became an important importer of Israeli agricultural, residential, and medical goods and services, as well as intelligence.

The relationship slowly began deteriorating in the 1970’s, when Iran had closer relations with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt and Iraq. Islamic cities in Iran maintained negative views of Israel that later became indoctrinated into the wider population. Finally, in 1979, the Islamic rule completely got rid of the Israeli relationship. Iranian leaders after the revolution weren’t kind to Israel. For example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) called the Israeli regime a “stinking corpse” and a “usurper”, and called for the annihilation of Israel. He also denied the holocaust. In 2015, Israel had called for the US to withdraw from the nuclear deal, which indeed happened under Trump’s administration.

Iranian schoolboys shooting toy guns at an Israeli flag as it burns during an anti-Israeli rally marking "Al-Quds Day" (Jerusalem Day)

International response

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas commented on Tehran’s statements regarding the attack by expressing his concerns over the negative contribution to the issue. The White House denied any US involvement in the attack without elaborating any further.

The US and European countries involved in the nuclear deal warned Iran’s plans to reach more uranium purity went against their deal. Despite the tension, the first round of negotiations between Iran and negotiators from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia were deemed “constructive”. The talks between Iran and international negotiators were considered more successful than European powers’ “weak reaction” to the Natanz attack by Iran’s foreign ministry.

Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal are still under evaluation. The seriousness of these violations have raised concerns and may force nations to impose sanctions on Iran.


A final note

Although the Natanz attack raised tensions, it doesn’t change the fact that Iran wants to get back to the nuclear deal and restore its economy. The Biden administration wants to stabilise the region to have more focus on the “threat of China”. Although quietly done, the US had expressed displeasure for Israel’s actions and statements.

Although Iran is working on reaching 60% purity, it’s doing so in small quantities to show good faith to the world. These quantities are small enough so that the enrichment would be reversible. Iran didn’t indicate they wanted to move forward and arm their uranium, but there are other ways Iran could lash out in the future. These could be in the form of cyberattacks and proxy attacks in the Middle East. It’s too soon to determine what Iran’s response will be, so only time will tell.

For more information on this topic, head over to our section on Foreign Affairs.

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