Attack on Iran’s Natanz Plant Muddies Nuke Talks

Washington (AP) -
Exterior view of the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ in Vienna, Austria, Friday, where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran were held. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

The attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility is casting a major shadow over the resumption of indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran over the resurrection of the international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

Neither Iran nor the U.S. say the incident will crater the negotiations. But the attack and the destruction of a significant amount of Iran’s uranium enrichment capability add uncertainty to the discussions set for Tuesday in Vienna.

The attack gives both sides reason to harden their positions, yet each has incentives to keep the talks on track.

Iran wants Washington to lift sanctions that have contributed to damaging its economy, including measures not related to its nuclear program. It insists that the sanctions be lifted before it returns to compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement that then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2018.

For the Biden administration, the talks are a high-stakes gamble that it can salvage what the Obama administration considered one of its prime foreign policy achievements and slow Iran’s programs, even as critics claim the accord had given Iran a pathway to a nuclear weapon instead of closing it off.

Iran has blamed Israel for the destruction at an important underground facility.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has taken a hand’s-off approach, neither praising nor condemning the attack. The White House said the U.S. “had no involvement” and had “nothing to add to speculation about the causes.”

The attack adds a fresh complication to discussions in Vienna and also to President Joe Biden’s efforts to smooth ties with Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enjoyed a close relationship with Trump, who abandoned the Iran agreement and began a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran by imposing harsh sanctions.

The U.S. has said it is prepared to lift or ease sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the nuclear deal along with sanctions that are “inconsistent with the benefits” that Iran expected to get from agreeing to the accord. The deal had removed nuclear sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its atomic program, although critics noted that many of those restrictions are time-limited and will expire before 2030.

The weekend attack on Natanz, one of Iran’s main nuclear facilities, came amid a break in the Vienna talks.

Key to the deal were restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment. Activities at the heavily fortified Natanz facility, which is built into a mountain, were among those most constrained.

Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges there during an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

Last July, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for that, as well as the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades ago.

Israel also has launched a series of airstrikes in neighboring Syria targeting Iranian forces and their equipment. And Israel is suspected in an attack last week on an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen.