On April 12, authorities in Iran received two heavy blows in various aspects, leading them to show ridiculous responses. Regardless of their intelligence and material consequences, the blows once again amplified political rivalries and plunged the entire ruling system into confusion.
Explosion at Natanz Facility
First, a deliberately planned explosion struck Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility contributing to a power failure and severe damages at the site and Tehran’s enrichment process. The explosion’s actual dimensions are still unclear. The government initially attempted to downplay the damages.
However, the explosion resulted in a seven-meter-deep hole in the facility. During his visit to the nuclear facility, the spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Behrouz Kamalvandi fell into the deep hole and was severely injured in both feet, head, and back. He was immediately transferred and hospitalized.
Furthermore, in an interview with Ofogh TV on April 12, Ali Reza Zakani, the head of the Parliament (Majlis) Research Center, provided damning details. “Recently, some MPs visited the facility. They were crying blood due to the scale of the damage. Some parts of the facility have completely shut down and vanished,” Zakani said. “Definitely, here is spies’ heaven. The spies are freely commuting here.”
Following the explosion, some officials called on President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to suspend nuclear talks with major world powers. “Leaving the Vienna negotiations would be the minimum response to this sabotage; however, this sabotage was the Vienna negotiations’ outcome,” said Deputy Majlis Speaker Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi in an interview with the Mehr news agency on April 12.
Both Zakani and Ghazizadeh Hashemi pointed to security and intelligent defects at the Natanz site. They mentioned another attack on this facility in June 2020, which destroyed some parts of a protected site. On the other hand, in November 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear bomb-making programs, was killed in an ambush in Tehran, revealing another flaw in the government’s intelligence apparatuses.
“Our intelligence apparatuses had precisely predicted that he would be targeted at the same point. However, due to our apparatuses’ negligence, the enemy sadly achieved its goal,” said Ali Shamkhani, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) secretary, in November 2020.
Also, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s military advisor Hossein Dehghan, who has recently announced he will be running in the June Presidential election, highlighted the government’s security failure, saying, “Fakhrizadeh benefited from a protection team, bulletproof vehicles, and required equipment. However, we must find the vulnerability.”
On April 13, Etemad daily shed light on contradictory claims of AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “Twenty-four hours after the sabotage at the Natanz enrichment facility, the dimensions of the incident gradually become clear. Salehi’s use of the phrase ‘nuclear terrorism’ for describing the attack and Zarif’s remarks that ‘we will build Natanz more advanced’ showed that the sabotage’s impact was significant,” Etemad wrote.
During recent months, the government constantly attempted to conceal its severe need for economic and political privileges under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iranian authorities have counted that the new U.S. administration would not use the military option. In this context, they delayed talks and showed reluctance to return to the negotiating table. Earlier, on January 8, Khamenei had declared, “We are in no rush, and we are not insisting on their return to the nuclear deal.”
However, in another speech on February 28, Khamenei reiterated his previous claims about ‘domestic production’ and a ‘resistance economy.’ In other words, he admitted to the effectiveness of sanctions, saying, “Our issue is not at all if the U.S. will return to that agreement or not. Our reasonable, logical demand is the lifting of sanctions. Sanctions should be lifted.”
In such circumstances, the Iranian government has been pushed into an awkward position. The Islamic Republic, especially Khamenei, pursues to have sanctions either loosened or lifted during the final months of Rouhani’s administration. He plans to purge domestic rivals in the upcoming Presidential election. However, he would like to exploit the ‘moderate flag’ for achieving sanctions reliefs in the remaining time of the ‘moderate’ President’s term in office.
Likewise, he cannot ignore recent attacks, and a lack of response would eradicate morale among his loyalists. In fact, Khamenei can neither withdraw from and boycott negotiations nor respond effectively to the attack amidst the nuclear talks in Vienna, which would dramatically shrink his base on the eve of the June election.
EU Sanctions Human Rights Abusers
Meanwhile, the European Union listed eight Iranian individuals and three entities for being involved in a bloody crackdown on protesters in November 2019. The designated persons include the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the State Security Forces chief, the chief of IRGC Ground Force, and the former warden of the notorious Evin Prison, as well as three significant prisons in Iran.
Notably, Iranian authorities used lethal force to quell nationwide protests in November 2019, leaving at least 1,500 victims, according to the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The SSF and IRGC also arbitrarily detained over 12,000 protesters and bystanders across the country. They were subjected to harrowing torture and ill-treatment, according to Amnesty International’s report.
The EU implicitly declared its support for the Iranian people’s protests. This event shows that European leaders feel the Iranian government’s weakness, which has encouraged them to push the ayatollahs to respect Iranians’ fundamental human rights, according to Iran experts
Furthermore, the EU statement coincided with nuclear negotiations and the Natanz explosion, which shows that Iranian negotiators have no chance of receiving more concessions in different sectors. The statement explicitly forbids EU citizens and companies from making funds available to the listed individuals and entities, pushing the autocrats in Iran to ease systematic violations of human rights in return for obtaining privileges.
Both the Natanz explosion and the EU statement bring political disadvantages for the government in Iran. However, they, particularly the EU statement, encourage people to hold their protests more than before. In other words, these developments fuel public ire against the ruling system and pave the path for more demonstrations and complaints.