Flammable Iran

If you run a large Iranian industrial site or military base, now might be a good time to check your fire insurance policy. For the past several weeks, things have been mysteriously blowing up or catching fire throughout the country. By my count, there have been at least a dozen high-profile incidents at military, industrial, and nuclear facilities over the past three weeks, with more reports of inflammatory incidents popping up seemingly daily.

The explosive summer began with a massive blast at a military base on the outskirts of Tehran on June 25. Islamic Republic officials were quick to downplay the significance of the incident, claiming it was the result of a faulty gas tank. Subsequent investigations, however, suggested that the damage was far more severe than the military let on. When news broke that the facility was actually a primary base of operations for Iran’s ballistic missile production program, speculation over the possibility of sabotage began to emerge.

Those rumblings grew louder in the following weeks as more sites around the country reported unexpected catastrophes. On June 30, an explosion at a medical clinic in Tehran killed 19 people. On July 3 a huge fire broke out at a garden in Shiraz. On July 4, a power plant at a petrochemical plant in southwest Iran sprung a chlorine gas leak, while a transformer exploded at at a power plant in Ahwaz.

The most significant incident occurred on July 2 at the Natanz nuclear plant, one of Iran’s biggest nuclear facilities. A fire engulfed several buildings in the complex, including, it was later revealed, a centrifuge assembly workshop. Officials, once again, initially downplayed the event, but a spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy body later admitted that the fire caused “significant damage” to Iran’s centrifuge production capabilities. Analysts have suggested that the fire could set back Iran’s centrifuge production by as much as a year.

Although there have not been any explicit claims or accusations of responsibility from any credible actors, it beggars belief that Iran, unlucky as it has been in recent years, would suddenly become the explosive embodiment of Murphy’s Law without a little outside help. After all, it’s not the first time that one of their nuclear site has unexpectedly blown up.

Media speculation about the potential culprit(s) quickly focused on the usual suspects, Israel and the United States. Such speculation is, of course, standard practice when dealing with the Islamic Republic, albeit with good reason. Israel and the United States partnered on the late 2000s cyber sabotage Olympic Games program, better known as Stuxnet, and both the Netanyahu and Trump administrations have been vociferous in their opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran, meanwhile, has held back on pointing the finger too directly at its foreign adversaries, preferring instead to portray the incidents mainly as a series of unfortunate accidents. This reaction, too, was predictable, given that any accusations of foreign interference would carry with it an embarrassing admission of failure on the part of Iran’s intelligence and security services. The continuing explosions, however, have recently made the believability of this stance increasingly untenable, provoking soft accusations of blame. Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, said that the Natanz explosion might have been the result of “hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the US.”

Tellingly, IRGC Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani issued a statement on July 14 in which he implied that a recent fire on a US Navy ship in San Diego was somehow connected to the recent spate of fires in Iran, calling the Navy fire “divine punishment” for Washington’s “crimes.” Most observers seem to have written off Ghaani’s statement as a desperate attempt to save face.

For the moment, it seems safe to assume that there is an element of sabotage taking place In Iran, and that agents of the United States or Israel are most likely involved. Still, the more relevant and interesting question isn’t Who?” it’s “Why?” What, if anything, are they accomplishing with their campaign?

In terms of degrading Iran’s technological progress, it’s difficult to say. Expert statements about delays in Iran’s nuclear program are, at best, estimations based on scant evidence. Iran has publicly acknowledged that it has progressed beyond the limits set by the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in response to the United States’ violation of that deal and the reimposition of economic sanctions, but how far it has gone in secret beyond that remains unknown. Last month, European officials joined the United States in passing a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) accusing Iran of hiding suspected nuclear activity, but again, details were scarce. The statement ran only one page and expressed “serious concern” about “possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities.” (As always, it’s worth noting that Iran had a perfect record of compliance with the JCPOA prior to the United States’ withdrawal in 2018, according to international inspectors.)

Strategically, a sustained sabotage campaign against Iranian facilities will not fundamentally weaken either Iran’s standing in the region or the regime’s overall stability. Certainly, Iran’s failure to stem the tide of explosions exposes serious flaws in its domestic security and intelligence apparatuses. But Iran’s broader influence depends far more on low tech military and intelligence operations in neighboring countries than it does on nuclear capabilities or advanced weaponry.

Similarly, mysterious explosions that carry the vague scent of foreign interference aren’t going to spur widespread protests against the regime, much less a revolution. (The regime’s own missteps are much more likely to cause that in the short term.) If anything, the mere suspicion that outside powers are, once again, meddling in Iranian affairs will only serve to further harden popular opinion against future Western overtures.

What we ultimately have here is a classic chicken-egg scenario. Are the attempts at sabotage the result of a hidden nuclear program, or does Iran need to hide its nuclear activities because anything it declares publicly will inevitably become the target of sabotage? Iran hawks will no doubt seek to portray recent events as proof that Iran is hiding a program more nefarious than its public declarations let on, but it is hard to see how Iran has any strategic choice other than to obscure its activities, particularly when even its compliance with an internationally recognized diplomatic agreement is portrayed as a facade masking sinister intent.

Whatever the answer, it is highly dubious that a scattered sabotage campaign will convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions, whatever they may be. On the contrary, it’s more likely to drive any future activities deeper underground, and it will make a return to the negotiating table even more challenging than it already is. With Rouhani’s moderate government increasingly marginalized and hardliners on the rise, the rift between Iran and the West will only expand in the coming months. In the worst case scenario, Iran could reach the conclusion that the only way out of their nuclear hole is to dig in deeper.

As ever, though, the Iranians can still read a calendar, and they still have November 3, 2020 marked on theirs. They can also read a poll, and they know how grim Trump’s numbers are at present. While the chaos of the last four years has surely degraded their trust in the United States writ large, the Iranians know that a Biden victory will at the very least ease some of the pressure. They also know that the goal of the sabotage campaign — assuming there is one — is to provoke an aggressive response that will trigger a wider conflict, perhaps one that will justify military action by the United States, Israel, or both. The Iranians won’t want to give them the satisfaction. Instead, they are more likely to try to wait it out and hope that this strategy doesn’t blow up in their face.

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