Israel was behind Thursday's bomb attack on the Iranian Natanz uranium enrichment facility, the New York Times reported Sunday.
The newspaper cited a Middle Eastern intelligence official as saying that Israel was able to plant a powerful explosive in a warehouse where researchers worked on advanced centrifuges.
The NYT also cited a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps with knowledge on the matter as confirming that Iranian investigators established that the blast had been caused by a bomb.
Officially, Iran said that it had already established what had caused Thursday's "incident" at the site but was not releasing the information publically yet.
Iran on Sunday confirmed that a damaged building at the underground Natanz nuclear site was a new centrifuge assembly center, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Iranian officials had previously sought to downplay the fire, which erupted early on Thursday, calling it only an “incident” that affected an “industrial shed.” However, a released photo and video of the site broadcast by Iranian state television showed a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed.
“We first learned that, fortunately, there were no casualties as a result of the incident, but financial damages incurred to the site due to incident were considerable,” said Iran’s atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi adding that the damage would “possibly cause a delay in development and production of advanced centrifuge machines in the medium term.”
He said that the fire had damaged “precision and measuring instruments,” and that the center had not been operating at full capacity due to restrictions imposed by Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran began experimenting with advanced centrifuge models in the wake of the U.S. unilaterally withdrawing from the deal two years ago.
Iran has long maintained its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.
An online video and messages purportedly claiming responsibility for the fire were released Friday. The multiple, different claims by a self-described group called the “Cheetahs of the Homeland,” as well as the fact that Iran experts have never heard of the group before, raised questions about whether Natanz again had faced sabotage by a foreign nation, as it had during the Stuxnet computer virus outbreak believed to have been engineered by the U.S. and Israel.
The Natanz fire also came less than a week after an explosion in an area east of Tehran that analysts believe hides an underground tunnel system and missile production sites.
Two U.S.-based analysts who spoke to The Associated Press on Friday, relying on released pictures and satellite images, identified the affected building as Natanz’s new Iran Centrifuge Assembly Center. A satellite image on Friday by Planet Labs Inc., annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows what appears to be damage done to half of the building.
Destroying a centrifuge assembly facility could greatly impact Iran’s ability to more-quickly enrich greater amounts of uranium, which would be a goal for either Israel or the U.S.
Natanz today hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium. Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5% purity — above the terms of the nuclear deal but far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. Workers there also have conducted tests on advanced centrifuges, according to the IAEA.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel is not "necessarily" behind every mysterious incident in Iran.
Asked on Sunday whether Israel had anything to do with "mysterious explosions" at Iranian nuclear sites, Gantz said: "Not every incident that transpires in Iran necessarily has something to do with us."
Last year Iran announced it was poised to begin work on advanced centrifuges that will enrich uranium faster. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran would soon begin work on research and development of "all kinds" of centrifuges that enrich uranium by rapidly spinning uranium hexafluoride gas.
Iran has begun breaking limits of the deal, such as just creeping beyond its 3.67%-enrichment limit and its stockpile rules. Using advanced centrifuges speeds up enrichment and Iranian officials already have raised the idea of enriching to 20% -- a small technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90%.