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Iran kept guessing over explosions

Israel's prior interventions in the region don’t mean that every explosion in Iran in recent weeks should be ascribed to the Jewish state

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Things are blowing up and catching fire in Iran. Power plants, hospitals, missile factories and uranium enrichment facilities. Who are you going to blame?

“Not every event that happens in Iran is necessarily related to us,” said defence minister Benny Gantz in an interview on Sunday. “Everyone can suspect us in everything and all the time, but I don’t think that’s correct.”

His Blue and White colleague, foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi was more suggestive saying at a conference that: “We take actions that are better left unsaid,” because “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities.”

Not that anyone expected Israeli leaders to say anything more about covert operations in Iran. They rarely ever do, but anonymous leaks to various international media is another matter. The New York Times were told by “a Middle Eastern intelligence official with knowledge of the episode” that Israel was indeed behind an explosion that destroyed a building housing advanced centrifuges, used for uranium enrichment, at the nuclear facility in Natanz. A Kuwaiti newspaper, seen by some as a frequent dumping-ground for anonymous Israeli announcements, claimed that six days earlier, a massive explosion at the Khojir missile base at Parchin, on the outskirts of Tehran, had been carried out by an Israeli F-35 stealth fighter jet.

At least that detail seems unlikely. An F-35 mission would have meant a round-trip of 4000 kilometers and air-refuelling along the way. Possible but hardly something Israel would risk a valuable aircraft and a pilot’s life for, when it has proven more than capable of operating within Iran by other methods.

Another interesting cryptic signal from Israel is the timing of seemingly unrelated announcements. On Sunday, as news from the Natanz explosion was filtering in, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office put out a statement that he had asked Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who was set to retire at the end of the year, to remain in office for another six months due to “the security challenges facing Israel.” Cohen’s extension had been expected anyway and there was no real reason to announce it five months in advance. It almost seemed as if Israel were trolling the Iranians.

Last month Unit 8200 of the IDF, which, among other duties, is the main unit carrying out cyberattacks, received an official citation from the commander of military intelligence for “secret operational activity carried out recently.” Weeks earlier, the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas was paralysed for an entire day due to a mysterious malfunctioning of its computer systems. This was widely seen as an Israeli retaliation to an earlier cyberattack by Iran on Israel’s water purification system. The Iranian attack failed to cause any real damage but the fact that they had attacked civilian Israeli infrastructure and could have potentially caused major casualties, was enough for Israel to retaliate with a cyberattack of its own.

This doesn’t mean that every explosion and fire in Iran in recent weeks should be ascribed to Israel. Iran is undergoing a prolonged economic crisis due to the international sanctions and low energy prices and this has been exacerbated by the ravages of Covid-19. Its infrastructure is collapsing and overburdened power stations hardly need a cyberattack or a stealth fighter bombing to catch aflame. But for now, Israel is content to keep the Iranians guessing.

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