Attempts to interrupt Iran’s nuclear proliferation are not uncommon, but they can often be made to sound more exciting than they really are. There seems to have been another effort over the weekend with an attack on the Iranian nuclear facility at Nantaz.
The Iranian state has claimed that there was ‘sabotage’ of the facility and vowed – as if it would say otherwise – to continue enriching uranium. But as in the case of another recent attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, once the basic facts of the operation are dealt with, the signal is given for the narrative to fly completely off the rails.
We will return to Nantaz, but I would first like to address another example of this trend. In November last year, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated in Tehran, allegedly by Israeli agents. At first, after the usual mourning and vows of revenge, the Iranian state and its media suggested that Fakhrizadeh was killed in a conventional fashion, by a team of infiltrators armed with explosives and guns.
But this story could not last. That explanation served no political purpose. It did not portray Israel as a threatening, usurping entity, but rather one whose special forces were simply good at their jobs.
This would never do. So, instead of this dull explanation, Iran has successively updated its official theories of the attack, each time making the story more dramatic and far-fetched. First, Iran suggested that Israel had rigged up a machine-gun turret to a Nissan which, upon being activated by remote control, shot at the scientist’s car, drawing him out to investigate; then sprayed Fakhrizadeh with automatic fire, killing him. His car finally exploded seconds later. According to Iran, none of the scientist’s assassins were even in the vicinity.
‘The operation was very complex and took place using electronic devices, and no one was present at the scene,’ said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council, at the time of Fakhrizadeh’s funeral. He also lumped in the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), suggesting this group was also responsible. MEK is an exiled Iranian cult which has a history of terrorist violence, but no connection to this attack.
Not long after, the story was adapted again: this time the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ali Fadavi, told the press that the attack was directed by satellite and carried off using artificial intelligence.
One must note that each time they were made, these elaborations were reported not only by Iranian state media, but also by newspapers across the world. Possibly the foreign journalists reporting each development believed this embroidery. Or perhaps they thought its entertainment value overrode its likely untruthfulness.
Remember that example when considering what is alleged to have happened at Natanz. The Iranian state first declared an ‘accident‘ at the uranium enrichment facility just as its new centrifuges were started, and as the broader Iranian bid for a nuclear weapon began a new stage. Then, ‘sabotage’. Then, Iran promised, as is its way, ‘revenge‘.
An Iranian spokesman was later declared injured because he went back to inspect the site of the explosion and fell through a hole created or covered up by the blast.
But Iran would not settle for simply writing this off as an act of ordinary sabotage, a physical raid which blew up its facility’s internal power system, even after state media declared that it had got a hold of the person responsible.
Iran instead maintains that the blackout was caused by a mysterious ‘cyberattack’ – something which was eagerly reported upon by the international press. The Guardian went so far as to suggest that Israel, which never acknowledges these operations, had in effect confirmed the cyberattack story. This seems distinctly unlikely.
This is par for the course: Iran suffers a minor blow to its nuclear ambitions, then expands the incident into a real rhetorical outrage, full of excitement, before vowing elaborate but indeterminate revenge which never transpires. It then continues enriching uranium and building ballistic missiles exactly as before.
Optimistic Israeli estimates suggest that the attack might delay Iran’s enrichment of uranium by nine months – not an insuperable length of time. Israeli generals like to overestimate the damage they have done to Iran’s nuclear programme in each one of these operations. I suppose it makes them feel a little safer.
For all of Israel’s ability and willingness to attack Iran’s nuclear programme and its scientists, nothing is ever halted by these operations. They only ever seem to delay the inevitable and terrifying day when a state which has vowed to blast Israel from the surface of the earth builds its first nuclear bomb a little into the future.
And no story of extraordinary subterfuge or Mossad infiltration, or AI-inflected guns controlled by satellite, will have the slightest effect on that fact.
Israel and Iran co-operate in the creation of these exciting stories. Israel by mounting operations and refusing to comment on them officially; Iran by inventing out of whole cloth fantastical elements to excuse its failure to detect and defeat ordinary tradecraft.
Both conspire to tell these stories rather than the dull ones, which insist that a bomb is still coming – just not quite yet.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.