Explosions in Iranian Military Sites: Accused Parties and Extent of Tehran’s Response

EPC | 28 Jul 2020

In June 2020, Iran experienced a series of explosions and fires that extended to military sites (including an explosion that shook the Parchin military complex, an explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility, and news of a series of explosions that extended to military sites east of the capital Tehran) and industrial zones (including an explosion in a power plant in Ahwaz in southwest Iran, a petrochemical company near Mashhad in northeast Iran, and a fire that broke out in a factory south of the capital Tehran), thereby raising serious questions about the nature of those incidents, their consequences, and the causes behind each one of them.

Incidents of a different nature

The incidents of June 2020 in Iran are distributed within several different axes:

  • The fires that erupted at industrial sites in different Iranian cities and can be considered natural fires that are witnessed by industrial sites in Iran during the summer due to high temperatures. The last three years have witnessed a steady rise in the number of those fires due to the worn-out parts used in those factories and the inability to replace them with new ones due to the sanctions. This suggests that such accidents are likely to increase, especially in the field of the petrochemical and energy industries.
  • Various Iranian cities have witnessed several explosions and fires that extended to urban centres and residential complexes, particularly the explosions in a health complex in the capital that left 19 people dead. While some of those incidents (that should be considered natural and insignificant from the security perspective) are also attributable to outdated techniques and machinery, there is a tendency in independent Iranian press and Iranian social media networks to consider some of those events as “cover-up explosions” carried out by the Iranian security establishments to achieve what is called in the political literature in Iran an attempt to “normalize explosions”. This means that in light of the questions raised in the street due to a series of explosions, the Revolutionary Guards (and the other security establishments) have tended to fabricate further explosions to cover up for the earlier events and make the state of explosions look normal at this time of year. While this direction in analysis brings with it the conspiracy theory, the experience in Iran supports it with several earlier indicators.
  • The more important aspect of the series of explosions is that they consecutively extended to military sites within a short period of time. While on 25 June 2020 a strong explosion shook the Parchin military complex, on 2 July 2020, another explosion caused devastation in the Natanz nuclear facility. In the meantime, news sources have spoken (amidst official denial) of explosions that took place on 9 July 2020 and shook the area of Korramdarreh in the east of the capital (where camps belonging to the Revolutionary Guards are located).

Who is behind the explosions in sovereign locations?

While the explosions that extended to those military sites are important in themselves, what is more important is the significance that could be associated with the succession of the explosions, the nature of the sites where they occurred, and the actors that stand behind them:

  • At first, the Iranian authorities sought to deny the security nature of those explosions (while they announced that the Parchin accident was the result of the explosion of a liquefied gas tank, it underlined that the explosion in the Natanz facility took place in an abandoned warehouse, far from the locations of the sensitive main facility), pressures resulting from the reports issued by international centres drove the authorities to admit that the incident came about as a result of man-made causes. According to reports issued by global monitoring centres, the explosion that took place in the Parchin complex led to extensive destruction in parts of the Parchin air and missile industries complex (part of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG)). The explosion is assumed to have created significant damages in tunnels used to manufacture missiles. Meanwhile, other centres announced that the Natanz explosion targeted a surface tank used to produce and store modern centrifuges. Iran has been striving to produce hundreds of those centrifuges to enrich uranium to 190 thousand units on the isotope separation scale pursuant to the instructions issued by the Iranian Supreme Leader in June 2018. All this drove the Iranian authorities to confirm the damages resulting from those explosions and their significant consequences. The spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) announced that the incident that took place in the Natanz facility led to widespread destruction in the centrifuges stored in the facility, and should have a significant impact on slowing down the Iranian nuclear programme.
  • The Iranian authorities were quick to reject that the accidents that occurred at those sovereign sites were the result of an attack that targeted them. However, the pressure of reports issued by international centres indicating such a possibility drove to a recognition thereof by the Iranian side. The director of security and cyber defence indicated that the Parchin explosion could have resulted from a penetration of the computer systems. On the other hand, the AEOI spokesman announced the existence of some suspicions in the monitoring and defence systems that have led to the Natanz facility incident. Sources in the Supreme National Security Council underlined that the Council is aware of the reasons behind the Parchin and Natanz incidents but declined to disclose them for security reasons.
  • Regardless of whether the third incident that were said by independent sources to have targeted military plants in the west of the capital did occur or not (it probably did occur considering the nature of the independent and official news), the nature of the locations targeted by the explosions reveals that they targeted sites that play a central role in the Iranian missile and nuclear programmes. While Natanz is tasked with developing the Iranian nuclear programme thought to be oriented towards non-civilian purposes, Parchin, together with the other military site located in Korramdarreh to the west of the capital Tehran, develop ballistic missiles that are thought to serve the nuclear project through developing missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. Historical experience indicates that the countries opposed to the Iranian nuclear programme do not differentiate it from the missile programme. In 2009 and 2010, similar attacks had targeted the Iranian nuclear programme (through planting a virus in the computer systems that control centrifuges in several Iranian facilities, mainly Natanz), followed by a military attack in 2011 that targeted a military facility for the manufacture of missiles south of the capital Tehran that led to the destruction of large parts of the Iranian programme for the manufacture of ballistic missiles and the killing of the commander supervising the programme, in addition to an attack on a camp in central Iran that is used to test and modernize the Shahab missiles.
  • The AEOI spokesman confirms that the attack on Natanz could serve to delay the Iranian nuclear programme for a short time. On the other hand, US sources underline that this attack would ensure a delay of two years in the Iranian nuclear programme, which is exactly the same duration of delay in the Iranian nuclear programme expected by US sources in 2011 as a result of any military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  • While official sources in Iran underline that the Natanz and Parchin incidents were the result of hostile acts that targeted them and that they seek to detect the violation in the monitoring and defence system penetrated by the attacks, the same sources did not officially reveal the actors behind the attack on the two sites. While an unknown group calling itself “Cheetahs of the Homeland” confirmed its responsibility for the incident, the majority of international sources indicate that Israel could be behind both incidents amidst official Israeli silence and indications by some unofficial Israeli sources of Israel’s responsibility for the incident.

A review of the positions announced by informed monitoring centres on those incidents indicate that the most likely scenarios would be the ones underlining that Israel was behind those incidents in light of Israeli assertion that the Iranian nuclear programme constitutes the most significant source of threat to Israel and in light of previous Israeli attempts to target sites that are related to the Iranian missile and nuclear programmes.

Theoretically, Israel is capable of targeting the two sites with cruise missiles or invisible planes that can penetrate the Iranian missile defence system. The Sayyad and Khordad-3 systems constitute the backbone of the Iranian air defence. These are two advanced versions of the Russian Tor-M1 system which dates back to the 1980s and 1990s, which is capable of matching modern flying objects, in addition to the S-300 and Bavar-373 air defence systems mostly deployed along Iran’s southern border. Theoretically, Israel is also capable of targeting both sites through security penetration. Iranian security agencies indicated that the Parchin explosion might probably have resulted from targeting the computer systems controlling the site, while the Natanz explosion could have resulted from a bomb planted in the centrifuge warehouse.

The timing and the significance: questions on the content of the attacks

The similarities between the attacks of June 2020 and previous attacks that targeted similar sites between 2009 and 2011 drive towards favouring the possibility that Israel is behind those attacks, especially in light of Israel’s strong motives to carry out such operations. This raises questions on the timing of the attacks and their significance from the Israeli perspective:

  • Timing:

The apparent ease with which the Iranian military targets were accessed and such attacks were executed raise the question about the reasons why such attacks had not been carried out in the past. However, this question that links the timing of the attacks to technical obstacles hides more important aspects, including the following:

  • The likelihood that the timing of the attack is associated more with the development witnessed by the Iranian nuclear programme, according to the Israeli view. While Iran underlines that its programme has not departed from its peaceful civil path, Israeli and international sources indicate that the Iranian nuclear programme is heading towards making a nuclear bomb and that Iran has greatly neared this goal. Some sources underline that the time separating Iran from reaching the stage when it can produce a nuclear weapon may not exceed a few months. Such estimations may drive Israel to carry out a strike that would serve to delay the Iranian nuclear programme.
  • Upon review of the Israeli positions, it can be said that Israel has attempted to follow the US  policy of driving the international community towards responding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions through mobilizing opinion in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and through providing evidence and documents proving Iran’s attempt to hide important parts of its nuclear activity, which supports the assumption that Iran is seeking to make a nuclear bomb. However, what Israel considers a failure by the IAEA  to curb Iran’s nuclear ambition (with the result of giving Iran more time) has driven Tel Aviv to act unilaterally. This constitutes a remarkable development in Israel’s strategy towards the Iranian nuclear issue.
  • Questions of content

In addition to the significance of the assumed Israeli attacks in terms of the shift from the policy of international organizations to the policy of decisive unilateral action with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, such attacks have another significance that should be taken into consideration:

  • While sources underline that such attacks cannot have been carried out had not the Israeli side coordinated with the US ally, a direct Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear targets in itself constitutes a clear Israeli divergence from the US policy of self-restraint that has so far prevented Washington from launching attacks on targets inside Iranian territories despite several Iranian attempts to harass the US side. Naturally, while the significance of such divergence should not be exaggerated, it remains a notable development in terms of how the two countries deal with the Iranian issue.
  • Israel had previously implemented the strategy of unilateral attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. If they did occur, the attacks on Parchin and Natanz constitute a notable and substantive shift in this strategy towards stinging in the Iranian interior. This interpretation (while it could find support in statements by Israeli officials in which they disclosed their intention to expand attacks on Iranian targets that endanger Israeli security even in the Iranian interior) cannot be taken too far since such attacks would not lead to this conclusion if they are not followed by new ones. On the other hand, their repetition and frequency, if any, would support that direction in analysis.

What will the Iranian response be?

Initially, newspapers close to the Revolutionary Guards establishments referred to a strong Iranian response to Israel. However, a close look at subsequent Iranian positions and previous historical experience indicates that it is unlikely that Iran will respond to Israel, even if Israel’s involvement in the latest attacks is proved. The reasons favouring this estimation include the following:

1- The main reason for favouring non-response by Iran to Israeli attacks is the lack of any Iranian strategy to confront Israel. A close look reveals that over the last decade, Iran had practically remained content with launching slogans in the face of Israel. Despite a few hostile Iranian actions against Israel, these did not develop into a well-articulated strategy. The lack of a strategy in the face of Israel is partially attributable to the fact that Iran has built its general strategy on confrontation with the US, and that it does not have an independent regional strategy. Rather, it considers regional countries as small parts on the margin of its strategy to counter Washington and as cards within the framework of that strategy. In the context of focusing on countering the US, Iran is likely to continue with its policy of silence with respect to the Israeli security stings.

2- Iran knows that any escalation against Israel may lead to mobilizing the global public opinion against Iran, even if the escalation was at the level of political rhetoric. Earlier experience has shown that such an escalation would mobilize the views of all the European countries against Iran and make the Russian ally distance itself from Iran and drive Russia in the direction of defending Israel. This would negatively affect Iran’s scheme to counter the US in general and at the nuclear level in particular. Based on this concern, Iran is unlikely to take action against the Israeli attacks on its nuclear and military sites (experience demonstrates that Iran has taken the same position with regard to all Israeli attacks on Iranian interests in Syria).

3- There are numerous technical determinants that prevent the Iranian response to Israel. Apart from the propaganda, Iran is incapable of reaching Israeli targets on its own since it does not have a modern air force that could fly long distances and hide from radar systems. Field experience has also shown that the medium-range missiles relied upon by Iran to hit targets outside its borders are incapable of reaching Israeli territory. This would force Iran to use the territories of countries hosting pro-Iran militias such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This option is also implausible considering the consequences it may have for Iran in terms of mobilizing the world’s public opinion against Iran’s regional influence and also considering that the countries hosting the militias would oppose the idea of using their territory to launch attacks on Israel.

The above reasons, in addition to other determinants, would drive towards favouring that Iran would remain silent with regard to Israel in case Israel’s involvement in the Parchin and Natanz attacks are proved. Such a conviction may explain the attempts made by official references and newspapers close to the Revolutionary Guards within the framework of rejecting the accounts that attribute the incidents to Israel (despite earlier signs in this direction), underlining that this news is fabricated by the pro-Israel propaganda machine that seeks to confer on the Israeli military establishment a power that it does not possess.

Scenarios

On the assumption that the incidents witnessed by Iranian military and nuclear sites are a result of attacks launched by Israel, the following scenarios could be conceived:

First scenario: direct Iranian response: this scenario assumes that Iran would respond directly by launching an attack on targets inside Israeli territories from within Iranian territories, although this would be totally symbolic, similar to the attack launched by Iran on the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq within the tit-for-tat strategy underlined by both the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. However, this scenario remains implausible, not just in view of Iran’s experience of silence in response to the Israeli escalation against its sites in Syria (assuming that distinction could be made between the attacks on Iran’s interests outside its borders and the attack on targets inside Iranian territories), but also due to a technical inferiority that would prevent Iran from responding and to Iran’s awareness that getting caught in the trap of escalation against Israel would have damaging implications for Iran at the international level.

Second scenario: indirect Iranian response: this scenario would overcome the technical obstacles preventing the direct response and get support from inside the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, some of whose commanders have underlined that the Iranian troops and allied militias deployed close to the borders with Israel (in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) could be used to launch a strike against Israel. However, this scenario is also implausible because the countries hosting those militias would favour opposing such a move and considering the possibility that Iranian relations with those countries would be disturbed in case an attack is launched against Israel from their territories without their knowledge. Within the framework of the same scenario, reference could be made to an indirect Iranian response in the form of  targeting Israeli interests in the world. While Iran has shown such a desire (considering that Israeli authorities have announced thwarting Iranian attempts to hit Israeli diplomatic interests in Europe), the implications of such a response at the political level and the mobilization of the global public opinion against Iran, in addition to the mismatch between the Iranian response and the Israeli attacks, would make this option highly implausible.

Third scenario: continued silence by Iran: this scenario assumes that Iran would not respond to the attacks for several reasons. Within the framework of this scenario, Iran would seek to manage the home media to play down the attacks and avoid focusing on the Israeli role, considering the assertions by international centres regarding the likely Israeli role as part of the psychological warfare. Iran would also seek to take symbolic positions such as supporting Palestinian factions while seeking to repair the deficiencies of its missile defence systems and ensuring the replacement of old systems with new ones. Within the framework of the same scenario, Iran would seek to focus on its military relations with Syria and portraying the Iranian presence (through Iranian troops and allied militias) as a challenge to Israeli presence.

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