Mystery Group Claims Iran Nuclear Site Attack Amid String of Incidents

An unknown group has claimed responsibility for a recent incident that transpired at a nuclear facility in Iran, according to BBC News' Persian-language news service.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for the Iran Atomic Energy Organization, told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency on Thursday that an incident had occurred at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Isfahan province south of Tehran. He downplayed the event, saying it did not inflict casualties or cause extensive destruction or radioactive pollution due to the "inactivity" of the complex.

But soon after, BBC Persian reported that some of its journalists had received a message from a group calling itself "Homeland Cheetahs" prior to what the previously-unknown organization called an act of sabotage against the Iranian government. The group claimed to be present and active within Iran's security apparatus, according to the report.

The group reportedly said it targeted a newly-assembled structure at Natanz, a site they chose because it was now underground, making it impossible for the Iranian government to deny the incident. BBC Persian said it could neither verify the existence of the group nor its link to what happened at Natanz on Thursday.

The Iran Atomic Energy Organization later released an image of what appeared to be a burned-out building that analysts such as Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, identified online as likely being the Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center that went into operation in 2018.

اولین تصویر منتشر شده از حادثه در یکی از سوله‌های در دست احداث مجتمع غنی‌سازی شهید احمدی‌روشن(نطنز)#سازمان_انرژ‌‌ی_اتمی_ايران#دیپلماسی_عمومی و #اطلاع‌_رسانی #AEOINEWS

— Atomic Energy Organization Of Iran (@aeoinews) July 2, 2020

"It seems that the incident involved Natanz' centrifuge assembly workshop, which is a critical part of the Natanz complex especially in regards to the introduction of more modern and efficient new generations of centrifuges," Hinz told Newsweek.

The incident at Natanz follows two other disruptive events to hit Iran in less than a week. A violent explosion at the Sina At'har health center in northern Tehran killed at least 19 people, first responders said. Last Friday, a massive fireball illuminated the night skies of Tehran after what authorities said was a gas storage facility at the Khojir military site on the outskirts of the capital.

The Iranian Defense Ministry said the first blast took place at an area near Parachin, but analysts have pointed to the nearby Khojir military site, where missiles are produced.

Both blasts were officially attributed to gas explosions, though the incidents have fueled speculation as to potential involvement by saboteurs, as well as foreign actors such as the United States and Israel who have a history of interfering in Iran's nuclear program. The two countries have accused Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons, an accusation it denies.

The Islamic Republic News Agency later published an article warning of consequences should signs emerge that the U.S. or Israel had a hand in the affair.

"Personally, I would say that while the Khojir explosion could still have been very well explained by a mere accident, this incident in Natanz shortly afterwards raises quite a few questions," Hinz said.

Iran has battled a number of enemies from within, including the exiled, yet influential People's Mujahedin of Iran, or Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Separatist Arab, Baluch and Kurdish militias have also attacked security forces, as have Sunni Islamist groups but the organization claiming to be behind what happened Natanz did not appear to espouse any particular ideology other than opposition to the current government.

Iran has long accused the U.S. and Israel, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of attempting to undermine the Islamic Republic by supporting such movements. Israel—itself in possession of nuclear weapons—has vowed to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power by all means and has neither confirmed nor denied its role in the Stuxnet cyberattack that targeted Iranian nuclear sites such as Natanz since at least 2010 and a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that same year through 2012.

The U.S. and Iran reached a nuclear deal alongside major world powers in 2015 but President Donald Trump's administration withdrew in 2018 and imposed unilateral sanctions that have made it difficult for the international community to normalize trade ties with Tehran as promised by the agreement. Washington has since pushed for European powers, China and Russia to leave accord and especially to stop the expiration of a United Nations arms embargo on Iran set to be lifted in October.

In the region, tensions continue to rise, especially in the wake of the U.S. killing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January. His successor, along with Iranian leadership and allied militias across the Middle East have vowed to expel U.S. troops from the region as a whole.

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A general view of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, is seen on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images