TEHRAN — Iran charged Monday that its arch-enemy Israel was behind an attack on its Natanz uranium enrichment plant and vowed it would take “revenge” and ramp up its nuclear activities.
The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) said a “small explosion” had hit the plant’s electricity distribution centre Sunday in what the foreign ministry labelled an Israeli act of “terrorism”.
The latest of a string of incidents hitting Iran’s nuclear programme came days after talks resumed in Vienna to salvage the battered 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that former US president Donald Trump abandoned.
His successor Joe Biden wants to revive the accord between Iran and a group of world powers, which places limits on the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme in return for relief from punishing economic sanctions.
Israel strongly opposes the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and has vowed to stop Iran from building an atomic bomb — a goal Tehran has always strongly denied pursuing.
Iran initially reported a power blackout had hit the Natanz site Sunday, a day after it announced it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges banned under the deal.
Israel did not claim responsibility for the incident, but unsourced media reports in the country attributed it to the Israeli security services carrying out a “cyber operation”.
The New York Times, quoting unnamed US and Israeli intelligence officials, also said there had been “an Israeli role” in the attack in which an explosion had “completely destroyed” the power system which fed the site’s “underground centrifuges”.
Israeli embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while hosting US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Jerusalem, reiterated Monday his stance that Israel will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, without mentioning the Natanz incident.
“I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel, and Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism,” he said.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Khatibzadeh earlier vowed that Iran’s response to the Natanz incident would be to take “revenge on the Zionist regime” when and where Tehran chooses.
“Of course the Zionist regime, with this action, tried to take revenge on the people of Iran for their patience and wise attitude regarding the lifting of sanctions,” he said.
The head of the AEOI, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that “this incident was certainly sabotage”, state news agency IRNA reported.
In a separate report by the Fars news agency, Salehi was quoted as saying that “the damaged centrifuges will be replaced with even more powerful” ones.
In a related incident AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi suffered an accident on Sunday while inspecting the site when he “fell from a few meters and suffered light fractures on his feet and head”, an IRNA report said.
Kamalvandi gave a video interview from his hospital bed Monday to the Tasnim news agency in which he voiced confidence that after the “small explosion… they can quickly repair the damaged areas”.
Tehran has blamed Israel for previous attacks on its nuclear facilities and experts — including the killing last November of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Natanz was the site of a previous incident last July, during which a building was damaged, an incident for which some Iranian media also blamed Israel.
Israel and Iran have long fought a shadow war, with Israel often striking Iran-allied forces in war-torn Syria. Since early March, both countries have also accused each other of a number of maritime attacks.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran would not allow the Natanz attack to affect the Vienna talks. Iran must avoid “falling in the trap” set by Israel, he told a parliamentary meeting.
The European Union said it “rejects any attempts” to undermine the Vienna talks and stressed the “need to clarify the facts” over the incident.
Russia said it was closely following the situation surrounding the “serious incident” and that “if it is confirmed that someone’s malicious actions are behind this incident, then such intent deserves strong condemnation”.
Germany, a partner to the nuclear accord, also warned that the “development in Natanz” was “not a positive contribution” to the negotiations.
Qatar expressed its “strong condemnation” of what it labelled “a dangerous act of sabotage that would increase tension and negatively affect the security and stability of the region”.