Syrian Surface To Air Missile Lands Near Secretive Israeli Nuclear Reactor

An errant Syrian surface-to-air missile caused alarm inside of Israel last night when it missed its intended target (an Israeli warplane apparently) and continued flying south into Israel and approached Dimona, the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The missile, an SA-5 Gammon did not damage the reactor and exploded 30 km away. Israeli air and anti-missile defenses attempted to engage the missile but were unsuccessful. Air raid sirens were heard across southern Israel. Shortly after the missile landed, Israel launched attacks against the SA-5 sites around Damascus. Syria’s state news agency claimed Syrian air defense forces intercepted Israeli rockets over the suburbs of Damascus “and downed most of them.” The incident has sparked the most significant round of violence between Israel and Syria in years. The initial Israeli air attacks, which triggered the SA-5 launch, were targeting Iranian assets which could be used for a potential attack against Israel.

The incident comes at a point of considerable tension between Israel and Iran, who are in the midst of a tit-for-tat shadow war. As negotiations aimed at bringing the United States back on board the JCPOA continue, there is concern that last night’s event will have an adverse effect on that effort. Most likely it will not. Sources close to those negotiations claim the US and Iran are nearing a diplomatic breakthrough.

As for the matter of the SA-5, there was initial concern that Iran had played a hand in it somehow. More than likely this isn’t the case. The missile is a long-range SAM, perfectly capable of reaching the area around Dimona from southern Syria. Israel does take the possibility of Iranian action against its reactor seriously though. It has recently bolstered the air defenses around Dimona to better protect the area from an Iranian drone or missile attack.   

Natanz And Israel’s Shadow War Against Iran

Natanz, a key facility in the Iranian nuclear program suffered a paralyzing blackout over the weekend. The power outage was caused by an apparent cyberattack which caused considerable damage to centrifuges located at the site. According to a source in the US intelligence community, the damage will set the entire nuclear program back by seven months at minimum. This includes uranium enrichment, which Iran has ramped up in the past eighteen months. This past weekend’s attack was not the first. Natanz has proven to be a primary target of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies over the past eleven years. The most well-known intelligence operation to involve Natanz was the 2010 the Stuxnet cyberattack that caused major delays to the nuclear program. In the summer of 2020, an explosion and fire occurred at the facility. Some sources have speculated that the cause was a cyberattack, although the Iranian government has never responded directly to the speculation.

With regards to the latest incident, Iran naturally suspects Israeli involvement. This morning Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif laid the blame directly on Israel and vowed revenge. “The Zionists want to take revenge on the Iranian people for their success in lifting the oppressive sanctions, but we will not allow it and we will take revenge on the Zionists themselves.” The incident could have an adverse effect on the talks now taking place in Vienna to revive the JCPOA and bring the United States back on board.

This is the second suspected Israeli action against Iranian interests in a week. Last Tuesday, around the same time the JCPOA discussions were beginning in Vienna, the Saviz, an Iranian ship in the Red Sea, was damaged by an explosion and fire. This ship has long held a reputation for serving as a platform for the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) intelligence operations around the region. As with Natanz, Iran immediately placed blame for the attack on Israel and in all likelihood, they’re probably correct.

Israel’s shadow war against Iran is not a new topic. What is, however, is the tempo of operations. As it grew apparent that the Biden administration does not intend on adopting a firm position on Iran and its ambitions, Tel Aviv realized it had to keep the pressure on. The Israelis are going to do everything possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even if some of the actions taken ruffle the feathers of its closest ally in the world.

30 December Update: Iranian Action Against US Interests Appears Probable

Indications from the Persian Gulf region point towards a growing likelihood of Iranian action as the one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination approaches. Tension between the US and Iran have been on the rise in recent weeks, as we have discussed recently. Over the last few days, however, signs of Iranian military preparations have become known. Air defenses, naval units, and security forces inside of Iran have increased their alert levels. The air defense revisions, curiously enough, include more combat air patrols over Natanz and other nuclear facilities in central Iran. Add to that the recent reports from the intelligence community advancing the theory that construction at the Natanz facility is presently ramping up.

In short, Iranian action is expected on or around 3 January. If it materializes, the United States has stated a military response will be forthcoming. Some critics of the US have wasted little time in branding potential military action against Iran a last gasp by the Trump administration. Others have warned that the administration is determined to leave US-Iran relations severely damaged so the incoming Biden administration will be unable to resurrect US involvement in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA).

On Wednesday US B-52 bombers undertook another show-of-force mission in the region. For the third time since late November, B-52s have flown within 50-70 miles of Iranian airspace. The latest mission was a 36-hour sortie that saw the -52s take off from Minot AFB in North Dakota, fly to the Persian Gulf region and then return home. The purpose of these missions is to showcase US airpower to both allies and adversaries. In this instance, there are assuredly many men watching carefully from Tehran.

Eyes on Iran

On Monday the New York Times reported that last week President Trump was considering military action against Iran’s main nuclear site at Natanz. According to the Times, the president was dissuaded by senior advisers from choosing a military option. The fear of sparking a larger conflict appeared to be the main motivation. Predictably, the Times story has yet to be independently verified by other news outlets. However, its timing and subject matter have opened up discussions about Iran, the present status of its nuclear program, and what US policy will look like if Joe Biden is declared the official winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election when all is said and done.

Western media has been lax in its coverage of the Iranian nuclear program in the last two years or so. Only recently have outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post seen it fit to report on accelerations in Iran’s nuclear program, specifically with regard to centrifuge production. However, the recent pieces have also included reports on how the Iranian government plans to offer a Biden administration options to defuse the crisis. The US has already been down that road once before with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran essentially led from behind in the construction of that plan, laying out the terms it would accept, and then indirectly pressuring the Obama administration to bring the deal to life. Returning to JCPOA, or a similar agreement would be a monumental mistake, and likely impossible to do, no matter how much a Biden presidency might desire to.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have joined the US in expressing concern about Iran and the centrifuge work going on. Yesterday, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed Iran has recently begun operating 175 new centrifuges at Natanz. Tehran has blamed Israel for a series of explosions that occurred over the summer at Natanz and near other nuclear sites in Iran. Even though the true culprit was never determined, Iranian authorities continue to suspect Israel, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia.

The bottom line is that Iran must be watched carefully in the coming weeks. Should work on centrifuges and other aspects of the nuclear program accelerate further, and Joe Biden continue to indicate his administration will adopt a more conciliatory, and passive Iranian policy, military action could become a real possibility. The only question then will be who launches it. The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or a loose combination of the three.

iran’s nuclear program targeted

Since late June a series of explosions and fires in Iran have gained attention from around the world. The explosions occurred at an X-ray lab in Tehran, a missile base at Parchin, a power plant in Ahvaz, an area that is home to Iran’s Arab minority, and most recently, the enrichment facility at Natanz. At first glance it is readily apparent that at least two of the above-mentioned sites are components of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Natanz alone has garnered headlines in the past when the US-Israel Stuxnet computer virus caused severed damage to the centrifuge program going on there. So, given that a major explosion took place at Natanz last week, and the facility is still the center of Iran’s centrifuge efforts it would be fair to assume that Iran’s nuclear program is once again in someone’s crosshairs.

2020 has not been kind to Iran thus far. The year started with the death of IRGC major general Qasem Soleimani at the hands of a US drone. Iran’s retaliatory missile strike against an airbase in Iraq being used by US troops was ineffective, and inadvertently led to the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by an Iranian air defense unit. US economic sanctions continue to have a detrimental effect. Then there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Iran has had considerable difficulty bringing under control. Now on top of all that, a new effort is likely underway to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Even more significant than determining who could be responsible is asking why it is even necessary. The sensible answer is that Iran is once again making progress in centrifuge production, a step that more than one nation-state has deemed to be unacceptable. The Iranian government has been vociferous in declaring it will soon no longer observe the JCOPA in light of the US removing itself from the deal, and Europe’s inability to garner sanction relief on behalf of Iran from the Trump administration. The US could conceivably be responsible for the recent explosions and fires, seeking to contain Iran’s centrifuge progress. Then there is Israel, which has been conducting a low-key effort against Iranian targets in Syria for months now. The Israeli position on the Iranian nuclear program is well known, and it is well inside the realm of possibility for Tel Aviv to be behind the explosion at Natanz at least.

Iranian leadership is under growing pressure to respond after Natanz. The hardliner majority in the nation’s parliament is becoming loud with demands, however, for the moment the regime seems content to invoke the JCPOA dispute mechanism and play the waiting game until US elections in November. It goes without saying that Tehran would prefer to contend with a Biden administration in the coming years rather than continuing to deal with the more hawkish Trump administration. Therefore, Iran will likely be careful not to spark an incident, or crisis that President Trump can use to his advantage on the campaign trail this fall.