On June 25th the Parchin Military Complex, East of Tehran, suffered a massive explosion and fire. On Sunday officials in the Iranian Government confirmed the blast and fire were at a uranium centrifuge facility. The fire was visible from the city and although video and some anecdotal reporting came out, little was known about the blast.
Despite early attempts to downplay the incident and keep it under wraps, information continued to leak out indicating something terrible had gone wrong. Finally a spokesman for the Iranian nuclear agency confirmed the story. He says the fire damaged precision instruments and measuring devices but Iran is notorious for downplaying the severity of military setbacks.
Iranian officials told Reuters that they believe it was caused by cyber sabotage. So far they have not provided any evidence. The stuxnet cyber worm targeted Iran’s enrichment program before so it’s natural for them to assume another cyber-attack if they don’t have other leads.
Centrifuge facilities such as this site are critical for advancing uranium enrichment. After the breakdown of the Iran Deal (JCPOA) Iran immediately resumed nuclear enrichment programs and announced it was starting back up development towards a nuclear weapon. Enrichment is an incredibly expensive, complex, and delicate process that’s required to create weapons-grade uranium.
Under prior agreements Iran was allowed to enrich but only up to very low levels of purity that work for power-generation but not for nuclear weapons. Iran was well known to exceed the thresholds. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made routine visits to Iran and often found them out of compliance. The IAEA also completely missed a fully-operational enrichment site as a former watch factory in Natanz. Critics claim the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency was looking the other way.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs Inc was marked up by two US-based analysts who showed the site of the blast. It’s unclear what caused the explosion but several groups have claimed responsibility online. The “Cheetahs of the Homeland” claims to have carried out the attack, they’re a relatively unknown domestic group in Iran. Foreign origins of the attack are equally as likely.
Stuxnet famously disabled the Iranian nuclear enrichment program for years until it was exposed publicly during the Obama administration. Stuxnet was a ubiquitous computer worm of unknown origin that finally came alive to destroy Iran’s enrichment sites. The worm took control of PLC systems that controlled the large and expensive centrifuges. It would report to on-site operators that everything was OK while it would be internally destroying the centrifuge and spoiling the uranium inside.
Stuxnet was eventually exposed by General Cartwright, who was investigated internally by the military. He was 2 weeks away from being sentenced for felonies charges related to the leak before he was pardoned by Barack Obama on January 17th, 2017.
The nature of the explosion last month is still mostly unknown. Israel has said it’s bracing for retaliation but has not claimed responsibility. Iran is known to retaliate in circumstances where it’s been set back and this will likely be no different.