On Sunday, a nuclear energy plant in Iran was attacked, resulting in a power failure throughout the facility and thus damaging its production of nuclear materials.
Located 155 miles south of Tehran, the Natanz uranium enrichment site was attacked by an unknown actor. According to the New York Times, an explosion struck the facility’s independent power system that supports the centrifuges with power causing a blackout. Initial reports indicated a cyberattack but it’s still unclear if the explosion was caused by such an attack or by a physical infiltration of the facility.
The Natanz nuclear site is heavily fortified, and the centrifuges that enrich uranium, which is critical for the construction of a nuclear weapon, are located underground and have a separate power source; the nuclear plant’s networks aren’t connected to the internet.
Israel has refused to comment on whether it is responsible for the attack. But US intelligence officials have told the New York Times that it was indeed the Israelis who launched the attack and that the damage is expected to push back Iran’s nuclear program for months.
The attack comes at crucial point. U.S. and Iranian diplomats are meeting through intermediaries in Vienna, Austria, in an attempt to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is officially known. The U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018. Ever since, Iran has threatened to revert to old practices that were banned by the deal.
This particular Iranian nuclear facility is no stranger to cyberattacks, having been on the receiving end of at least two in recent history. The first took place in 2010 when the US and Israel launched the Stuxnet virus on the facility. This ahead-for-its-time virus breached the computers that managed the centrifuges and ordered them to spin at a much higher rate than they were designed for and thus destroy themselves. As it was doing this, the Stuxnet virus manipulated the facility’s network to hide the attack and to give the impression that everything was working as it should. In the end, the Stuxnet virus destroyed thousands of centrifuges, pushing Iran’s nuclear program back for several months.
More recently, in 2020, the Natanz nuclear facility experienced a series of strange fires that destroyed several centrifuges and buildings.
It’s definitely an interesting and tumultuous time for Iran, as the country is faced with an incoming storm of simultaneous economic, demographic, political, and social crises.
There is significant civilian unrest within the population and dissatisfaction with the Iranian government, which is seen as inept and autocratic. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit particularly hard the sanctions-struck Iranian society and economy. The U.S. sanctions and the pandemic offer Tehran little room for maneuver financially, and a balance of payments crisis is looming on the horizon. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Iranian government has approximately $9 billion left in reserves.
Although the country is holding its presidential elections in June, the candidates are fixed from the regime. Iranian elections are free but not fair.
It remains to be seen if this latest attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities and the bubbling domestic crisis will force Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear deal.