In comments quoted Monday by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif blamed the attack on Israel, saying that “the Zionists want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.”
On Sunday, the Israeli public broadcaster Kan, citing unnamed Israeli and U.S. intelligence sources, reported that Israel was behind the cyberattack on the Natanz facility and that the “Mossad was involved.” The sources said the damage to centrifuges at the site as a result of the attack was “significant” and would delay Iranian efforts to enrich uranium. The assertions could not be immediately confirmed.
The alleged attack cast a shadow over the tense negotiations underway in Vienna intended to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. It was the second suspected Israeli attack on Iran in less than a week: On Tuesday, hours before the Vienna talks began, an Iranian ship was damaged by an explosion in the Red Sea.
In Europe, there was deep worry that the attacks could sabotage the delicate work of breathing new life into the nuclear agreement.
“We are following this very closely and with concern,” said Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Commission, which is chairing the talks in Vienna. “Any attempt to derail them, to undermine them, has to be fully rejected. And all questions related to the Iranian nuclear program need to be resolved through diplomatic means, because there is no other alternative, no sustainable alternative.”
The suspected attack also coincided with a two-day trip to Israel by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who became the first senior Biden administration official to visit the country. During a news conference with President Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Austin said his visit was intended to “reaffirm the administration’s commitment to Israel and the Israeli people.”
“I wanted to underscore my personal pledge to strengthening Israel’s security and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge,” he said.
Yoel Guzansky, former head of the Iran desk of Israel’s National Security Council and a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said reports of Mossad involvement in the Natanz blackout indicate a rare move to circumvent Israel’s military censor and unofficially claim responsibility.
“If it was authorized, Israel wants its name to be connected to the attack and to gain something, either vis-a-vis Iran or the U.S. If it’s unauthorized, it’s a security breach problem, but either way, it’s a problem,” he said. “It’s not healthy to brag, but you also force your opponent to do something, and I’m sure they will.”
While Iranian officials acknowledged that centrifuges were damaged, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Monday that emergency power systems were put into operation afterward and that “enrichment in Natanz has not stopped and is moving forward vigorously,” according to the IRNA.
In a news briefing Monday, Saeed Khatibzadeh, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the suspected attack on the Natanz site “a bold act of nuclear terrorism on Iranian soil” and among the “crimes against humanity which the Israeli regime has been doing for many years now.”
There were no casualties or nuclear contamination as a result of the attack, but it could have “resulted in a catastrophic situation,” he said.
Khatibzadeh added that some of the older-generation centrifuges were damaged but would be replaced by newer ones.
On Saturday, the day before the blackout and Iran’s national day for nuclear technology, new, more-modern centrifuges were tested at the Natanz facility, with capacity to refine uranium at a much faster rate.
“We have of course seen the reports of the incident at the Natanz enrichment facility,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “The United States was not involved in any manner. We have nothing to add on speculation about the causes or the impact.”
The administration has not been “given any indication about a change” in Iranian participation in the nuclear deal talks, she added.
The escalation of a shadow war between Israel and Iran, including increasingly publicized maritime attacks, could threaten what both Washington and Tehran have said is modest progress in the negotiations in Vienna.
President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed hundreds of new sanctions on Tehran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.
Iran insisted it was still committed to the agreement but said it would progressively abandon some elements of the deal. It has increased both the quantity and quality of its enriched uranium, from the 3.67 percent enrichment stipulated in the nuclear deal to 20 percent. The delicate negotiations in Vienna, brokered by European powers, are attempting to find a formula that would lift U.S. sanctions while bringing Iran back into compliance with the terms of the agreement.
Israel is staunchly opposed to the nuclear accord.
“In the Middle East, there is no threat that is more serious, more dangerous, more pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran. Iran has never given up its quest for nuclear weapons and its missiles to deliver them,” Netanyahu said Monday. Iran has said its nuclear program is intended for peaceful civilian purposes.
The explosion last week that damaged the Iranian ship in the Red Sea was caused by mines, Iranian officials said. In July, a mysterious explosion at the Natanz facility also was described by Iran as sabotage.
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Paul Schemm in Dubai, Michael Birnbaum in St. Louis and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.