Explosion at Iran plant gives Biden time

Tehran's nuclear programme is a threat, but also deeply vulnerable

epa09130141 A handout photo made available by the Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, 05 November 2019 (reissued 12 April 2021). Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi said an electricity disruption at Natanz nuclear facility on 11 April 2021 was a 'terrorist act' adding that his country reserves the rights to act against culprits. The AEOI said that an incident involving disruption of the Natanz nuclear facility's power network occurred, one day after President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated new centrifuges.  EPA/AEOI HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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On Sunday, Iran's Natanz nuclear plant suffered a major attack. An explosion led to a cut in the power supplying centrifuges that enrich uranium. US intelligence sources have reportedly claimed that the incident, which Iran says was Israeli sabotage, will set back Tehran's nuclear programme by as much as nine months.

Some have interpreted a statement by Israel's defence chief, Aviv Kochavi, that his country's activities in the region are "not hidden from the eyes of the enemy" as an acknowledgment of responsibility. Israeli public radio stations have openly claimed that Mossad, the country's intelligence agency, was a central player in the explosion.

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility 250 km (155 miles) south of the Iranian capital Tehran, in this Maxar Technologies satellite image taken last week and obtained by Reuters on April 12, 2021. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. DO NOT OBSCURE LOGO./File Photo
Iran claims that its atomic programme is simply to generate sustainable energy. Reuters
With Iran's programme delayed, Mr Biden need not rush a deal

If true, the operation would fit a wider pattern of reciprocal attacks over the years between Iran and Israel. Israel is thought to have hit  Iran's nuclear programme before. An attack on the Natanz facility would be an operation as symbolic as it is strategic. The site has been at the centre of ongoing tensions about the nature of Iran's nuclear programme. Tehran claims it has a sovereign right to atomic energy. With Iranian officials having stated publicly that "wiping Israel off the map" is an "achievable goal", its adversaries justifiably worry that Iran's nuclear programme is rather an effort to obtain atomic weapons.

Moderating Iran's nuclear ambitions is the primary goal of western countries at talks taking place in Vienna. Partners in the Middle East are keen to see these talks succeed. However, they stress that a more comprehensive approach is needed, taking into account, among other destabilising policies, Iran's ballistic missile programme and the vast expansion in recent years of its network of proxies.

Countries have a right to defend themselves, but outright attacks on sovereign infrastructure and their potential for hugely dangerous consequences could lead to further escalation. Caution must be the guiding principle as tensions rise.

This is not a call for appeasement, however. Last week, Iran described the Vienna talks as having been "constructive”, but meanwhile Tehran has consistently been raising the stakes. An announcement on Tuesday that Iran will start enriching uranium up to 60 per cent purity is of further concern.

Nonetheless, different approaches among Middle Eastern countries and their western allies do not necessarily lead to contradiction. US President Joe Biden, who is the ultimate shepherd of the western approach to Iran, must proceed in a manner that avoids the region feeling as if it has to defend itself alone. With Iran's programme delayed by months, he can take time to consolidate and not rush into a hasty settlement.

Iran must realise that renewed focus on regulating its nuclear programme is not an attempt to stifle its prosperity. The aspirations of many Iranians to develop renewable energy are laudable, but they can only be realised – especially through nuclear power – if Tehran adopts global standards of transparency. Ending the limits it imposes on International Atomic Energy Agency inspections would be a simple but significant step in the right direction.

Until then, Iran might never reach  a stable settlement over its nuclear programme, even if talks in Vienna result in concessions. The incident at Natanz, yet again, exposed Iran's vulnerabilities and the possibility of dangerous escalation.