Iran has confirmed that fire damage to a building — possibly by sabotage — at the underground Natanz nuclear site would slow production of advanced nuclear centrifuges that were to be manufactured there.
Iranian officials had initially downplayed the fire, which erupted early Thursday, calling it only an “incident” that affected an “industrial shed.” However, a released photo and video of the site broadcast by Iranian state television showed a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed.
And a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said Sunday that work had begun in the center in 2013 and it was inaugurated in 2018, state news agency IRNA reported.
“More advanced centrifuge machines were intended to be built there,” he said, adding that the damage would “possibly cause a delay in development and production of advanced centrifuge machines in the medium term.”
He said that the fire had damaged “precision and measuring instruments,” and that the center had not been operating at full capacity due to restrictions imposed by Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
That deal — which President Trump pulled the US out of — only allowed Iran to enrich uranium at its Natanz facility with just over 5,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, but Iran has installed new cascades of advanced centrifuges.
Iran, which says it will not negotiate as long as sanctions remain in place, has repeatedly vowed to continue building up what it calls a defensive missile capability run by the Revolutionary Guards, in defiance of Western criticism.
The country began experimenting with advanced centrifuge models in the wake of the US withdrawal two years ago.
Iran has long maintained its atomic program is for what it claims are ‘peaceful purposes.’
An online video and messages purportedly claiming responsibility for the fire were released Friday.
The multiple, different claims by a group called the “Cheetahs of the Homeland”– a group Iran experts have never heard of before– raised questions about whether Natanz had been sabotaged by a foreign nation, as it had during the Stuxnet computer virus outbreak believed to have been engineered by the US and Israel in 2010.
Natanz today hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility.
In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium.
Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5 percent purity — above the terms of the nuclear deal but far below weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
On Thursday, an article by IRNA addressed what it called the possibility of sabotage by enemies such as Israel and the US, although it stopped short of accusing either directly.
And the country vowed vengeance should its investigation reveal that sabotage was behind the fire.
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