On Sunday, just hours after starting to run new, advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium faster, Iran’s nuclear facility at Nantanz suffered what was termed a “suspicious” blackout. Speculation immediately began in the Israeli media that some kind of cyber attack had crippled the facility.
It wouldn’t be the first time Nantanz had been targeted. In 2010, the Stuxnet worm wreaked havoc on the facility’s centrifuges, causing a huge drop in enriched uranium output.
These new centrifuges could take the 20 percent enriched uranium that Iran already possesses and jack it up to bomb-grade levels (90 percent) in a matter of weeks. It’s no surprise that Israel might be worried enough to try to sabotage it.
Power at Natanz had been cut across the facility comprised of above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls, civilian nuclear program spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told Iranian state television.
“We still do not know the reason for this electricity outage and have to look into it further,” Kamalvandi said. “Fortunately, there was no casualty or damage and there is no particular contamination or problem.”
Asked by the state TV correspondent if it was a “technical defect or sabotage,” Kamalvandi declined to comment.
Centrifuges are very delicate, highly sophisticated machines that, in order to enrich uranium efficiently, must spin at enormous speeds and sync up with other centrifuges. A slight error could easily destroy dozens of them.
In December 2010, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested that the Stuxnet worm is a reasonable explanation for the apparent damage at Natanz, and that it may have destroyed up to 1,000 centrifuges (10 percent) between November 2009 and late January 2010.
The authors of the ISIS report concluded:
The attacks seem designed to force a change in the centrifuge’s rotor speed, first raising the speed and then lowering it, likely with the intention of inducing excessive vibrations or distortions that would destroy the centrifuge. If its goal was to quickly destroy all the centrifuges in the FEP [Fuel Enrichment Plant], Stuxnet failed. But if the goal was to destroy a more limited number of centrifuges and set back Iran’s progress in operating the FEP, while making detection difficult, it may have succeeded, at least temporarily.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”
Given the rising tension between Israel and Iran in recent months, it’s more than possible that Mr. Guzansky’s hypothesis is accurate. Israel has good reason to fear this latest generation of centrifuges.
On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
It should be noted that Iran was able to test a limited number of the IR-6 centrifuges even under the terms of Obama’s nuclear deal. To say that Trump’s abandonment of the deal took the shackles off Iran would be dishonest. Iran was well on its way to violating the agreement even before Trump pulled out.
The damage will only delay the program, not stop it. Israel knows this and will look for opportunities to keep the Iranians from deploying the ultimate weapon in the future.