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Source: Washington Post

Jan 30, 2023

By Miriam Berger and Babak Dehghanpisheh 

An explosion struck a military industrial factory near the Iranian city of Isfahan on Jan. 29 in what Tehran says was a drone strike by unidentified attackers.

Iran said a drone strike lightly damaged a defense ministry complex in the central city of Isfahan on Saturday, an attack that reverberated across capitals as tensions with the West and Israel mount over Tehran’s advancing nuclear program, arms supply for Russia’s war in Ukraine and lethal crackdown on months-long anti-government protests.

Iran’s Ministry of Defense said that three drones struck around 11:30 p.m. local time Saturday, according to a statement carried by the IRNA state news agency, in an attack that caused “minor damage to the roof of a workshop.”

Iranian media separately reported that a fire broke out Saturday at an oil refinery near the northwestern city of Tabriz. Local officials, however, told IRNA that no attack took place at the Azarshahr factory complex near Tabriz, as well as at another unnamed site in the western Hamadan province.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Saturday strike. But Israel has a history of conducting attacks on Iranian nuclear program facilities as part of an ongoing shadow war between the two regional rivals, a campaign that appears to have escalated following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, three years into the landmark agreement.

Both the State Department and the Israeli Defense Forces declined to comment.

One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as they were not permitted to speak publicly on the matter, said the strike appeared to be the work of the Israeli military but that they could not independently confirm.

News of Saturday’s attack did elicit comment from Ukraine, where Russia has been using Iranian-supplied bomb-carrying drones to attack Ukrainian civilians and critical infrastructure far from the front lines.

“War logic is inexorable & murderous. It bills the authors & accomplices strictly,” Mykhailo Podolyak, senior aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted Sunday. “Explosive night in Iran — drone & missile production, oil refineries. Did warn you.”

There appeared to be no direct connection between Ukraine and Saturday’s attack, said Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow with D.C.-based Washington Institute think tank.

He said Israel was most likely behind the strike, given the history of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, “using drones to attack Iranian military and nuclear sites.” In addition to causing material damage, Nadimi said, these attacks are intended to send “a message to the regime in Tehran that they [Israel] have access to their sensitive sites and that their air defenses are not impenetrable.”

It remains unclear exactly what was hit Saturday and whether it was the intended target, as has typically been the case with these kinds of attacks.

A video of the strike posted to social media and unverified by The Washington Post showed a loud bang and large flash of yellow near a bustling highway filmed in the dark.

“It was a drone, right? It was a drone,” an unidentified man is heard saying in an Isfahan accent of Persian.

Nadimi said the site likely held sensitive information related to Iran’s nuclear technologies and weapons program. Across the street from the building struck is a research center affiliated with Iran’s civilian space program, which is also “very active in supporting the military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” said Nadimi. The center has a sister facility in the city of Tabriz, the site of the alleged fire, though there was no direct evidence linking the two, according to Nadimi.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Sunday that the Isfahan strike “can’t have an effect on the will and intent of our experts for peaceful nuclear progress,” the semiofficial Tasnim news agency reported.

While Iran insists it is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes, the United Nation’s top nuclear official, Rafael Mariano Grossi, told European lawmakers last week that Tehran had enriched enough uranium to potentially build “several” nuclear weapons.

Iran has more highly enriched uranium than it did during years of tensions that preceded the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who stressed that despite its growing capabilities, Iran had not yet built a nuclear weapon.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran expert with the American University of Beirut, said he expected Israel’s alleged “sabotage of Iran’s military and nuclear programs” to intensify given the “dim” chance of reviving the 2016 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action intended to contain the development of Iran’s nuclear program.

Among the factors contributing to the stalemate over any revival of the nuclear deal, he said, was “the higher political costs in the West” given the protests in Iran against clerical rule, sparked in mid-September by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, while in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police.

The Biden administration has endorsed the protest movement and has put Iranian officials under sanctions for their role in the crackdown, in which authorities have killed more than 500 people, executed at least four and arrested some 20,000 others, according to the activist news agency HRANA.

The unrest in Iran comes amid the return to office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu through a coalition that includes extreme-right Jewish nationalists and settler activists and spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel, under Netanyahu’s direction for most of the last decade, is believed to have carried out a series of clandestine strikes inside Iran, though it rarely makes public comments.

In May, an engineer was killed and another person injured in what Tasnim described as an “accident” at the Parchin military complex southeast of the capital Tehran. The year before, an attack allegedly damaged centrifuges at the underground Natanz nuclear facility near Isfahan. Among the more brazen attacks attributed to Israel was the 2020 assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in a daytime assault on his convoy of cars.

Saturday’s strike signals that “Bibi is back,” referring to Netanyahu, “and that perhaps the U.S. is providing Israel with greater operating space to target Iran given the deadlock over nuclear talks, in addition to the West’s frustrations with Iran over its military support of Russia during the Ukraine war,” Ellie Geranmayeh, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email.

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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