Are three mysterious explosions in Iran linked? - analysis

Three mysterious incidents, linked by explosions – at least two of them at secretive nuclear and weapons facilities – have rocked Iran in the past week.

A view shows railway packages for containers with uranium hexafluoride salt, raw material for nuclear reactors, similar to the one be used for the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank (photo credit: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / REUTERS)
A view shows railway packages for containers with uranium hexafluoride salt, raw material for nuclear reactors, similar to the one be used for the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank
Three mysterious incidents, linked by explosions – at least two of them at secretive nuclear and weapons facilities – have rocked Iran in the past week. All three have been reported by Iranian media with various excuses about how they are less serious than
they appear, that they are being investigated and that there is no major story to tell.
On June 25, a massive explosion, seen many miles away in Tehran, burned a hillside near a missile complex at Khojir. On June 30, a medical center suffered a fire in Tehran, killing at least 18 people. And on July 2, an incident at Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility was mentioned by the country’s official media, without elaboration. Officials claimed that only a shed was damaged. In each case, officials appeared to try to get ahead of the story by obfuscating about the seriousness of the incident or why it took place at a sensitive facility.
This leads to key questions about why so many explosions or incidents have affected key aspects of Iran’s military-industrial complex. Rumors posted on social media and elsewhere online have suggested not only a cover up but also allegations of a “cyber” attack or other concerns about how these incidents unfolded. Iran alleged a cyber attack harmed Shahid Rajaee port in May, in the wake of an Iranian cyber attack on Israel.
AT THE HEART of this are concerns about Iran, increasingly pressured by US sanctions, lashing out across the region. The Islamic Republic has systematically walked away from the 2015 Iran deal, enriching uranium and ramping up its weapons programs. It has focused on ballistic missiles and precision guidance for munitions, as well as drones and nuclear facilities. The Natanz facility was well known for being affected by the malicious Stuxnet computer worm in 2010. Stuxnet was developed by the US and Israel according to The New York Times, and may have destroyed up to 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz facility.
Natanz consists of a fuel enrichment plant and is Iran’s largest gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility, according to the BBC. It began working in 2007. Iran’s Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, said on July 2 that there were no casualties at Natanz and that the incident was being investigated. He said there was no need to worry about the possibility of contamination “due to the inactivity of the complex.” It was a strange statement, to deny that anyone had been injured and highlight that the facility was not operating. Kamalvandi’s statements headlined the Iranian Students News Agency website and others in Iran on Thursday.
At the same time, Tehran prosecutors have said that the explosion at the Sina Medical Center in Tehran was unintentional. But at least 18 people are dead. High level officials in the government speaking about the June 30 explosion also highlighted the mystery of it. If it was just a routine tragic fire and mistake, what was the need to have high-level officials looking into it, commenting on it and vowing to investigate?
The explosion at the medical center may be less mysterious than the Natanz and Khojir incidents because it is not immediately clear what links it to Iran’s clandestine military programs. For instance, the explosion at Khojir was initially said by Iran to be in Parchin, with media showing a gas tank that had exploded. The size of the explosion caught on video seemed much bigger than the gas tank Iran alleged it came from.
KAMALVANDI HAS been Iran’s point man for explaining the country’s willingness to systematically break the Iran deal guidelines. In August 2019, he said that Iran could reach up to 20% enrichment of uranium. He confirmed further breaches of the nuclear deal that July. Iran says this is in response to the US walking away from the deal in 2018. An accident or explosion at Natanz would call into question what Iran is really up to and whether its nuclear facilities are as secure as Iran says they are.
The need to rush Kamalvandi in front of the cameras to get Tehran’s story out first appeared to underline his agenda. This also appears to be the messaging behind the medical center and Khojir explosions: Get the news our first so rumors don’t spread. That is why Iran admitted that people died at the medical center and tried to show video of what they claimed was the minor Khojir explosion. This sounds a bit like “nothing to see here.”
Iran can’t hide the Khojir incident because it was too big. Conspiracy theories have been advanced about what might have occurred. Why are at least two of the incidents linked to “gas canisters”? That was the explanation given for the medical center explosion. When the medical center exploded, many reports noted that it was only four days after the Khojir explosion and that both involved gas leaks – supposedly.
While Iran’s Tasnim and Fars News media, linked to the IRGC, posted photos of the medical center explosion, one article at Iran’s official IRNA website said that the center was not linked to radioactive materials. Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister who is well known for having had COVID-19 in February, said that the Sina Athar D-Clinic was a dental and imaging center and there were no radioactive materials affected. He appeared to deny it was linked to any nuclear issues. This is also a strange statement: a high-level official denying rumors apparently floating online. He appeared to deflect the rumors by claiming there was regular radiology at the center.
IT APPEARS that Iran’s messaging is directed at the international community as well as for internal consumption to allay concerns that something very bad is happening in Iran. Iranians consume media reports and the public has been on edge for a year due to sanctions and protests last year that saw the government kill some 1,500 people and shut down the Internet. Protesters have been angered at Tehran’s insistence at plowing money into weapons programs rather than local social programs. Explosions at Natanz and the missile facility at Khojir will lead to questions among the public.
This leaves us with three mysterious incidents and no clear answer as to how they are linked. The Khojir explosion was shown to be falsely linked to Parchin when in fact it was likely at a ballistic missile site linked to important industrial groups that built Iran’s solid- and liquid-fueled missiles. What we can see on the surface however is just a burned patch of earth. It may be that whatever exploded has deeper roots underground. Some of these sites appear nondescript on the surface – just a warehouse or shed – while they are actually more important than they seem.
What is clear is that Iran has attempted to admit and showcase these incidents rather than hide them. This appears to be a concerted effort to try to pretend that it is hiding nothing, such that US officials or others cannot point to these sites after the event and show the explosions as evidence Iran is up to something nefarious. Asked about the explosion at Khojir, for instance, US-Iran envoy Brian Hook was non-committal on a visit to Israel.
Tehran will be quick to try to move these stories off the front page. Having “admitted” that nothing important happened, it will then go on to highlight other regional issues, such as the Houthis fighting Saudi Arabia or Hamas “resisting” Israel. Any suggestion that three incidents in Iran in a week are linked can be brushed aside by Tehran by saying they had already been investigated and commented upon.