Work accident or sabotage?

On Saturday, a mysterious and massive explosion rocked a military-arms depot near Tehran, killing 17 Revolutionary Guards Corps officers and wounding 15 others, a spokesman for the elite fighting force told the semi-official Fars news agency.

Iranian officials said the blast was caused by an accident as soldiers moved munitions at the base in Bidganeh, near Shahriar, 45 km. west of the Iranian capital. The base is also believed to be the storage center for some of Iran’s most-advanced long-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab 3.

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Israel and the United States have been accused over the years of working to sabotage the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs.

In October 2010, a similar blast took place at a Revolutionary Guards munitions store in Khoramabad, in western Iran, killing and wounding several servicemen.

While there was no indication of any attack on Saturday, the explosion shook homes and rattled windows for kilometers, at a time of mounting tensions with Israel over Iran’s nuclear program.

“So far, 27 personnel of Revolutionary Guards have been martyred and 16 others wounded, some of them are in critical condition,” Iranian broadcasting quoted Revolutionary Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif as saying. The causality numbers were subsequently lowered to 17 dead and 15 wounded.

“Today at 1:30 p.m. an explosion happened in one of the Revolutionary Guards’ bases while a consignment of explosive devices was being moved out from the arsenal; besides that some munitions in the arsenal exploded which created a terrifying sound,” Sharif said.

Residents in western suburbs of Tehran told Reuters they had felt the blast, with some assuming it to be a small earthquake.

Fire raged at the base for hours. Surrounding streets were closed and reporters were kept away from the scene.

Some media reported there had been two explosions, and the head of Iran’s Red Crescent organization said there was a risk of further blasts.

Mahmoud Mozafar told the Mehr news agency that only six paramedics had been allowed into the Amir al-Momenin military base and that thick smoke was hampering the rescue operation.

There were no reports linking the blast to any air strike or other attack. Tension has risen in recent weeks between Iran and its enemies Israel and the United States, which have not ruled out striking facilities they believe are working toward making nuclear weapons.

Sharif denied what he said was speculation in the Western media that the military base was linked to Iran’s nuclear program. “This blast is not related to any nuclear tests that some foreign media have reported,” he told Mehr.

Tehran denies Western accusations that were given further credence by a report from the UN nuclear agency last week, that its nuclear program has military ends.

On Sunday, the cabinet in Jerusalem will be briefed about the International Atomic Energy Agency report during its weekly meeting.

The Foreign Ministry has instructed its emissaries to speak with their counterparts in capitals around the world about the need for severe sanctions against Iran.

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