A fire and an explosion struck a centrifuge production plant above Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility early Thursday, analysts said.
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran sought to downplay the fire, calling it an “incident” that only affected an under-construction “industrial shed,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said but both Kamalvandi and Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi rushed to the facility, where more than a decade ago the US and Israel used the Stuxnet virus to destroy nuclear centrifuges.
Iran downplayed the incident as evidence mounted that the fire was intentional sabotage. Data collected by a US a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite revealed the blaze started around 2 a.m. Iran time, according to The Associated Press.
Images later released by Iranian state media show a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.
“There are physical and financial damages and we are investigating to assess,” Kamalvandi told Iranian state television. “Furthermore, there has been no interruption in the work of the enrichment site. Thank God, the site is continuing its work as before.”
The BBC reported that its Persian-language division received a statement from a previously unknown group called “Cheetahs of the Homeland” claiming responsibility for the fire.
The statement said the group represents “underground opposition with Iran’s security apparatus.”
A State Department spokesperson told The Post: “We are monitoring reports of a fire at an Iranian nuclear facility. This incident serves as another reminder of how the Iranian regime continues to prioritize its misguided nuclear program to the detriment of the Iranian people’s needs.”
The Atomic Energy Agency of Iran on Thursday released a photo of the damage and a statement downplaying the “incident.”
Agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said that “one of the technical niches being built in the open space area of the Natanz site was damaged. This incident didn’t cause any human casualty neither inflicted hazard to the complex routine activities.
The spokesman continued, “From the probability of any pollution occurring, also considering the non-status activity position of the complex, there is nothing to be concerned of, and at present, the Organization’s expert teams are present at the site and investigating the matter.”
The theocracy’s rulers insist its nuclear program is only for energy generation, not weapons, but the assertion is widely doubted.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the UN Security Council that Iran was “the world’s most heinous terrorist regime,” in an effort to extend a strict arms embargo expected to expire in October.
In 2018, President Trump withdrew the US from a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran that former President Barack Obama and European allies hoped would prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Trump said the deal enriched Iran and didn’t do enough to prevent weapon development.
Trump, however, has walked a fine line with Iran, often suggesting a new nuclear deal and inviting the nation’s leaders to call him. Trump is a critic of past presidents’ Mideast wars and called off retaliatory airstrikes after Iran shot down a US drone last year.
In January, Trump ordered an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, who supported Iran-linked militias across the region. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at US bases.
— with Post wires