Iran declines to disclose cause of mysterious nuke site fire

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AP) — An online video and messages purportedly claiming responsibility for a fire that analysts said damaged a centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear site deepened the mystery on Friday around the incident — even as Tehran insisted it knew the cause but would not make it public due to “security reasons”.

The multiple, different claims by a self-described group called the ‘Cheetahs of the Homeland’ included language used by several exiled Iranian opposition organisations. They also focussed almost entirely on Iran’s nuclear programme, viewed by Israel as a danger to its very existence.

The disparate messages, as well as the fact that Iran experts have never heard of the group before, raised questions about whether Natanz again had faced sabotage by a foreign nation as it had during the Stuxnet computer virus outbreak believed to have been engineered by the United States (US) and Israel. Tehran’s reaction so far shows Iranian officials are increasingly taking the possibility seriously.

“If it is proven that our country has been attacked by cyberattacks, we will respond,” warned Head of Iran’s military unit in charge of combatting sabotage General Gholam Reza Jalali according to a report by the Mizan news agency.

Iranian officials have sought to downplay the fire, which erupted early on 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-storey brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.

Two US-based analysts who spoke to The Associated Press (AP), relying on released pictures and satellite images, identified the affected building as Natanz’s new Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center.

A satellite image on Friday by Planet Labs Inc, annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows what appears to be damage done to half of the building.

Iranian nuclear officials did not respond to a request for comment from the AP on the findings. However, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency quoted the spokesman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council as saying authorities know the cause of the fire.