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Media Watch | The Mysterious Blast in Isfahan

06 Dec 2011 01:05Comments

Air Force maneuvers or explosion? Accident or sabotage? Was uranium conversion facility the target? And was it struck?

CamerasIsfahanUraniumFacility.jpg[ media watch ] One week ago, around 2:40 p.m. local time Monday, November 28, the sound of a massive blast was heard throughout the city of Isfahan, in central Iran. The moderate conservative website Farhang Ashti reported that the sound of the apparent explosion was so strong that people, terrified, rushed to the streets.

According to Tabnak, the website close to Major General (ret.) Mohsen Rezaei, former top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, there were unconfirmed reports that the sound might have been related to maneuvers by the Iranian Air Force near a base outside of the provincial capital, while others attributed it to the possible explosion of a natural gas pump in the city's Dolatabad neighborhood. The Israeli and Western news media focused on the fact that Isfahan is home to several nuclear-related sites, most importantly a uranium conversion facility (seen here in an archive photo); some English-language media outlets claimed that this facility was severely damaged, though there was nothing like a consensus that sufficient evidence existed to draw such a conclusion. The incident took place two-and-a-half weeks after an explosion at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facility 30 miles outside Tehran killed Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a leading figure in the development of the Islamic Republic's missile program, and at least 16 other Guard members -- that blast was attributed by at least one Israeli source to a joint Mossad/MKO operation; a "Western intelligence official" similarly told Time that Mossad was involved in that deadly explosion.

Aftab News, the website close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, soon reported that Deputy Governor-General Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili of Isfahan province had confirmed the occurrence of the enormous sound, though he had no information about its cause. Mashregh News, a website aligned with the security forces, also confirmed that the sound of a giant explosion had been heard; before long, however, Mashregh reported that Esmaili had recanted his statement and said there had been no indication of any explosion. The Isfahan municipal fire department and the provincial governor-general's crisis management center similarly confirmed the occurrence of the sound at first, only to subsequently retract their statements.

Gholam Reza Ansari, Isfahan province's judiciary chief, told Aftab News that a loud sound like that of an explosion had been heard, but that he did not believe it was anything significant. According to the Ebrat News website, which is believed to be close to the Isfahan prosecutor-general's office, the sound of an explosion was heard in many neighborhoods, but that, due to security considerations, it had not reported on the matter until it was officially confirmed by the judiciary. Ansari later told the semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, "I hope that this is nothing important." According to Rah-e Sabz (Jaras), the pro-Green Movement website, Fars featured an independent report on the sound of the blast that it removed from its site after the news was picked up by Israeli media.

On the website of Israel's relatively liberal daily Haaretz, the lead story on the incident was headlined "Report: Explosion rocks Iran city of Isfahan, home to key nuclear facility." The item devoted particular attention to that facility, whose existence went virtually without mention in Iranian coverage of the incident. As Haaretz put it,

It should be noted that Iran operates a uranium conversion plant near Isfahan, one with an important function in the chain of Iran's nuclear program.

It first went into operation in 2004, taking uranium from mines and producing uranium fluoride gas, which then feeds the centrifuges that enrich the uranium.

Since 2004, thousands of kilograms of uranium flouride gas were stockpiled at Isfahan and subsequently sent to the enrichment plant in Natanz.

The Times of London, published by embattled conservative press baron Rupert Murdoch, flatly claimed that Isfahan's primary nuclear site was "hit by a huge explosion" (the following text is excerpted from the report as republished in the Times's Murdoch-owned sister paper The Australian):

Satellite imagery seen by The Times confirmed that a blast that rocked the city of Isfahan on Monday struck the uranium enrichment facility there, despite denials by Tehran.

The images clearly showed billowing smoke and destruction, negating Iranian claims yesterday that no such explosion had taken place. Israeli intelligence officials told The Times that there was "no doubt" that the blast struck the nuclear facilities at Isfahan and that it was "no accident". [...]

"This caused damage to the facilities in Isfahan, particularly to the elements we believe were involved in storage of raw materials," said one military intelligence source.

He would not confirm or deny Israel's involvement in the blast, instead saying that there were "many different parties looking to sabotage, stop or coerce Iran into stopping its nuclear weapons program".

The Times report did not address the question of the toxic fallout that would presumably have resulted from the sort of blast it claimed took place, and why there was no evidence of such fallout or efforts to contain it or clean it up.

Time reported on comments made by Israeli military figures hinting that Israel was responsible for the Isfahan event, with the apparent assumption that a nuclear facility was the target:

"Not every explosion over there should be tied to reconnaissance and stories from the movies," Dan Meridor, Israel's minister for intelligence and atomic matters, told [Israeli] Army Radio. Saying, "it isn't right to expand on this topic," Meridor nonetheless went on to acknowledge that espionage has set back Iran's nuclear program. "There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways," Meridor said.

A former director of Israel's national security council, retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, told the station the Isfahan blast was no accident. "There aren't many coincidences," he said, "and when there are so many events there is probably some sort of guiding hand, though perhaps it's the hand of God."

Four days after the incident, Haaretz columnist Yosi Melman tied it directly to last year's Stuxnet computer worm, which infected systems at multiple facilities related to Iran's nuclear program, and the recent Guard facility explosion. "The war is under way," he wrote, "though no one declared it and no one will confirm it. This is the secret war against Iran's nuclear project." He used the occasion to paint a provocative scenario of a coordinated sabotage effort that "requires sophistication, financial and technological resources, agents and precise intelligence":

[W]ith all due respect for Western intelligence's great efforts -- including what is probably unprecedented operational coordination -- it is unlikely these operations could have succeeded without inside support, meaning from individuals or groups ready to help sabotage the ayatollahs' regime. It should be remembered that Iran is a mosaic of ethnic minorities, and almost all have reasons for disliking the regime; some have their own underground armed militias.

The theory about inside help gains traction given that, in addition to the military targets, other sites -- including oil facilities, gas pipelines, trains and military bases -- were also damaged over the past year. Last year there was a considerable increase, of at least 10 percent, in "breakdowns" and "accidents" at Iran's strategic infrastructure sites. Some were caused by poor maintenance, due in part to the international sanctions, but the volume of these incidents may also indicate the "hand of God" was involved. If this is the case, then it's possible that internal Iranian opposition groups (as opposed to exiles) are stronger and even better organized than generally thought.

Despite all this, however, Melman acknowledged that -- notwithstanding the Murdoch empire's take on the matter -- when it comes to Isfahan, "It is not yet clear what was damaged in the blast."

A source in Isfahan told Tehran Bureau that last week's incident, contrary to the Times's claim of "billowing smoke," produced no visible smoke and, as far as he was aware, resulted in no damage or injuries. According to the source, there was just a loud sound, similar to one -- also unexplained -- heard some months ago.

Columnist Muhammad Sahimi and Senior Editor Dan Geist contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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