Iran blamed Israel on Monday for a sabotage attack on its underground Natanz nuclear facility that damaged its centrifuges, an assault that imperils ongoing talks over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal and brings a shadow war between the two countries into the light.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack. It rarely does for operations carried out by its secret military units or its Mossad intelligence agency. However, Israeli media widely reported that the country had orchestrated a devastating cyberattack that caused a blackout at the nuclear facility.
While the nature of the attack and the extent of the damage at Natanz remains unclear, a former Iranian official said the assault set off a fire while a spokesman mentioned a “possible minor explosion.”
The attack also further strains relations between the U.S., which under President Joe Biden is now negotiating in Vienna to re-enter the nuclear accord, and Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to stop the deal at all costs.
Netanyahu met Monday with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose arrival in Israel coincided with the first word of the attack. The two spoke briefly to journalists but took no questions.
“My policy as prime minister of Israel is clear: I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel,” Netanyahu said. “And Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism.”
At an earlier news conference at Israel’s Nevatim air base, Austin declined to say whether the Natanz attack could impede the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with Iran in its nuclear program.
“Those efforts will continue,” Austin said. The previous American administration under Donald Trump had pulled out of the nuclear deal with world powers, leading Iran to begin abandoning the limits on its atomic program set by the accord.
But German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed concern that it could affect the talks. “All of what we are hearing from Tehran is not a positive contribution to this,” Maas told reporters.
In a statement, the White House said it was aware of the Natanz attack and that “the U.S. was not involved in any manner,” without elaborating.
Details remained scarce about what happened early Sunday at the facility. The event was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began referring to it as an attack.
A former chief of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said the attack had set off a fire at the site and called for improvements in security. In a tweet, Gen. Mohsen Rezaei said that the second assault at Natanz in a year signaled “the seriousness of the infiltration phenomenon.” Rezaei did not say where he got his information.
The facility seemed to be in such disarray that, following the attack, a prominent nuclear spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi walking above ground at the site fell 7 meters (23 feet) through an open ventilation shaft covered by aluminum debris, breaking both his legs and hurting his head.
“A possible minor explosion had scattered debris,” Kamalvandi said, without elaborating.