The head of Iran's nuclear agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced on Sunday that the nuclear reactor in Natanz was shut down following what he called an Israeli act of terror. "The action taken against the Natanz site shows the failure of the opposition to Iran's industrial and political progress to prevent the significant development of Iran's nuclear industry. Iran will continue to improve its nuclear technology on the one hand and to lift oppressive U.S. sanctions on the other hand," the head of the nuclear agency said.
The following day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif blamed Israel, accusing it of a cyberattack against the relatively old centrifuge network of Natanz. Zarif promised revenge against Israel for its actions and that the centrifuges will be upgraded to much more advanced ones.
The New York Times hurried to report that according to sources in Israel and the U.S., the incident in Natanz was significantly more complex that what is described in the Iranian reports, and that a great amount of damage was caused to the Natanz facility. According to the newspaper, a powerful explosion took place in the facility's electricity system as a result of classified Israeli operation. The newspaper estimated that it will take at least nine months for the Iranians to restore production at the enrichment facility.
The blackout at the enrichment facility occurred one day after Iran started operating advanced centrifuges for enrichment of uranium, in violation of the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran , and after certain progress in talks between representatives of the powers and Iran in Vienna.
The previous commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei, claimed in a post on his Twitter account that a fire broke out at the enrichment facility for the second time this year. According to him, the blackouts indicate that the facility is not well-protected, and the two incidents indicate that the facility has been infiltrated by hostile entities. Razaei's comments came after one of the main newspapers in Iran, "Norniuz", reported, based on what it called "intelligence sources" that the person who caused the electricity outage in Natanz has been identified, and a manhunt after him is underway.
The enrichment facility in Natanz, one of the main facilities in Iran's nuclear program, is a main target in the plan to thwart the nuclear program of Iran. It was revealed that from 2010-2012, a virus called Stuxnet was injected into the facility's network, causing the shutdown of the facility. The Stuxnet was injected using a CD into the facility's closed network by one of the workers, and caused the complete destruction of the centrifuges. The attack of the facility was attributed to Israel and the U.S. by Iran and the international media.
So far, it is still not clear who is behind the latest attack and how it was carried out. There are two possibilities (if it indeed was an attack and not a technical malfunction at the facility). The first possibility is that there was physical sabotage by a worker or a squad that succeeded in infiltrating the facility. The second possibility is that the sabotage was carried out using the injection of a virus similar to Stuxnet by a worker with access to the facility's network, acting on behalf of a third party.
One way or another, the attack on the facility took place at a fascinating time in terms of Iran's nuclear program. The war against Iran is also underway in the naval domain with a main objective to portray Iran as a country that is violating the economic sanctions imposed on it and dealing with pirate oil shipments at sea.
The war in the naval domain, in which, according to reports by foreign sources, Iranian oil tankers were attacked by Israeli Navy forces, is also intended to thwart Iran's steps to create for itself an alternate economy that bypasses sanctions. Meanwhile, during this period, informal contacts have started between Iran and the U.S. aimed at lifting the sanctions placed on Iran by President Trump in 2018 and returning to the negotiations on the Iranian program.
These days Iran is engaged in a chess match in which its objective is to show power and its unwillingness to relinquish its intentions to develop its nuclear program, as well as its willingness to hold discussions with the U.S. and other powers. The explosion in Natanz is expected to delay the enrichment of uranium at the facility for between several months and a year, and to portray Iran to the U.S., during this sensitive period, as a country that violates sanctions and does not honor agreements.