Iran’s foreign ministry has blamed Israel for an attack on a nuclear plant, as US intelligence sources claimed the incident would set back Tehran’s nuclear programme by nine months.
Israel has not confirmed it was behind a cyber-attack on the heavily guarded Natanz facility, but its security officials have done little to dispel the notion.
US intelligence sources said the attack on Saturday led to an explosion that destroyed the independently protected power that supplies the advanced centrifuges that create enriched uranium.
Iranian intelligence claimed to have identified an individual inside the plant’s hall who was responsible for the sabotage by disrupting the flow of electricity, but the account was being treated with caution and may be intended to show the plant’s electricity flow is not vulnerable to external attack.
US intelligence sources told the New York Times they believed Israel was responsible for the attack, the second in nine months.
At a press conference, the Iranian foreign ministry said no one was injured and only relatively simple centrifuges had been damaged, which would be replaced by more advanced models that could purify uranium at greater speed. However, the plant’s proven vulnerability to Israeli attack makes this claim questionable.
There was no comment on the attack by the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, who by coincidence was in Jerusalem at the time of the attack. Israel is vehemently opposed to the nuclear talks and has always argued it has a right to attack Iran to protect itself.
No immediate condemnation came from either France, Britain or Germany. All three countries are in the middle of highly sensitive talks with Iran in Vienna on the terms for the US and Iran to return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal constraining Iran’s nuclear programme.
In a discussion on Monday with Iranian security officials, the country’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said of Israel: “The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions … they have publicly said that they will not allow this. But we will take our revenge from the Zionists.
“If they think our hand in the negotiations has been weakened, actually this cowardly act will strengthen our position in the talks,” he added.
Iran initially took a low-key response to the attack, saying it was investigating an accident, but through Sunday and Monday became more explicit that its nuclear programme had been attacked in an act of terrorism that could have caused a catastrophe and needed to be condemned.
The Natanz uranium enrichment site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.
Israel’s apparent intervention came at a delicate time in the negotiations as Iran decides if it is willing to open direct talks with the US or instead, as last week, continue to work through European intermediaries. The two sides are in the middle of negotiating whether the US must lift all sanctions imposed after 2016 or a selective group linked to the nuclear deal. Iran has said it will only return to compliance with its side of the deal after the US lifts all the required sanctions that have throttled its economy.
Iranian negotiators have claimed as many as 1,600 different sanctions must be lifted. The US says some of these are not related to the enforcement of the nuclear deal but to terrorism, human rights, Iran’s missile programme or money laundering.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday broadly reiterated his opposition to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
“It is a major operation to confront the Islamic Republic and its allies, as well as to try to equip the country with nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told a meeting of Israeli security officials. “Today’s conditions will not necessarily exist tomorrow.”