Iran nuclear base blitzed by deadly sabotage

Underground: Thousands of centrifuges are hidden in Natanz’s subterranean bunkers. © PA

Does Israel have the world’s best secret service? An explosion in Iran has caused major damage to the country’s nuclear programme – and few people doubt that Mossad agents were responsible.

At first, Iranian officials played down Thursday’s incident at the Natanz nuclear facility. It was just a fire in a shed, they said: nobody was hurt, no significant damage was done.

But video footage showing a building with its roof blown off and a door blasted from its hinges told a different story. And then came a more plausible explanation: someone had smuggled a bomb into the building.

Responsibility has been claimed by a dissident Iranian group called “Cheetahs of the Homeland”. But experts think it far more likely to be the work of Israel’s secret service, Mossad – possibly with the help of the US.

Natanz, with laboratories built 25-feet underground to withstand air attacks, is Iran’s centre for enriching uranium, which might eventually be used to create a nuclear bomb. And no country has more to fear from that than Israel.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, has described Israel as “a cancerous tumour” that should be removed from the region. His regime is accused of assisting Israel’s enemies Hamas and Hezbollah, and organising terrorist attacks on its embassies. Iran even issued a stamp commemorating an Egyptian soldier who murdered seven Israeli tourists.

In recent years, Israel has carried out a series of covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme. Several leading scientists have been assassinated using bombs attached to cars or motorcycles.

In 2018, Mossad agents broke into a warehouse in Tehran and stole half a tonne of secret documents revealing the whereabouts of secret equipment and nuclear material.

Mossad’s reputation for daring and persistence spans decades. In 1960, a team traced and kidnapped one of the architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina and smuggled him back to Israel to face trial.

Following the Munich massacre in 1972, when the Palestinian Black September group murdered 11 Israeli athletes, Mossad spent 20 years tracking down the men it believed responsible and killed several of them.

In 1976, when Palestinian hijackers took over a flight from Tel Aviv and forced the pilots to land in Uganda, Mossad played a crucial role in rescuing the passengers and crew, obtaining plans of Entebbe Airport and sending an agent to take pictures of it in broad daylight. In the ensuing raid by Israeli commandos, 102 of the 106 hostages were brought out alive.

Mossad can also draw on some of the most advanced security technology in existence, thanks to a policy of investing in high-tech companies. Natanz had previously been the target of a highly sophisticated cyber attack, in which a computer virus called Stuxnet was successfully used to disrupt uranium enrichment.

Does Israel have the world’s best secret service?

Mossad bosses it

Some say, yes, Mossad has a record of successes second to none. It is brilliant at training its agents and, because Israel has been involved in or threatened by armed conflict since its creation, its secret service is under constant pressure to produce results. It is also completely ruthless. As Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, said on Sunday, “We take actions that are better left unsaid.”

Others argue that there are equally effective secret services elsewhere: just look at the murder of Kim Jong-un’s brother by North Korean agents in Malaysia in 2017. And some Mossad operations have gone badly wrong. Six agents were arrested in Norway after killing a Moroccan waiter they mistook for a Black September leader; two were arrested in New Zealand for trying to obtain passports by fraud.

You Decide

  1. What character traits are most important for a spy?
  2. Do nuclear powers have the right to stop other countries developing the same technology?

Activities

  1. Design a stamp commemorating a spy.
  2. Imagine that you are part of a secret-service team which has just stolen half a tonne of nuclear secrets from a foreign capital. Devise a code and use it to write a report on the operation for your headquarters.

Some People Say...

“It’s easy to forget what intelligence consists of: luck and speculation. Here and there, a windfall; here and there, a scoop.”

John le Carré, British novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Iran’s nuclear programme has accelerated since the US’s withdrawal from a 2015 deal – also signed by the EU, Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany – which promised Iran relief from crippling trade sanctions. In return, Iran said it would enrich uranium only enough to fuel nuclear power plants, and not to the high level needed for weapons. The damaged building is believed to be a workshop for assembling centrifuges, which are vital to the enrichment process.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around several other recent incidents, which could have been acts of sabotage by Mossad. Six days earlier, there was an explosion at a missile factory near Tehran. Since the Natanz attack, there have been explosions at two power plants in Iran, and a leak of chlorine gas at a chemical plant. Though the Iranian government has described all of these as accidents, many suspect Israeli involvement.

Word Watch

Plausible
Acceptable or believable. It comes from the same Latin word as “applause”.
Dissident
A person who opposes official policy, especially that of an authoritarian state.
Mossad
The Hebrew word for “institute”. Its full name is the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, and its motto is a quote from the Bible: “For by wise guidance you can wage your war.”
Uranium
A very heavy, silvery-grey metal that is naturally radioactive.
Ayatollah
A title given to senior clergymen in Iran. Ayatollah Khameini’s predecessor as Supreme Leader was Ayatollah Khomeini.
Hamas
A militant Palestinian organisation, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007.
Hezbollah
A militant organisation based in Lebanon. It has made direct attacks on Israel and is believed to have been responsible for assassinating Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
Adolf Eichmann
The senior Nazi in charge of organising the deportation of Jews to extermination camps during World War Two. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged in 1961.
Munich massacre
Eight members of Black September killed the athletes and a German policeman during the 1972 Olympic Games, after a failed rescue attempt.
Entebbe Airport
The hijackers had the support of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The Israeli commandos flew more than 2,000 miles to carry out the rescue operation.
Kim Jong-un’s brother
Kim Jong-nam was the North Korean leader’s older half-brother. He was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur International Airport; the four agents thought to be responsible all escaped.

Subjects

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