The incident at the country’s main uranium enrichment facility last week – which Tehran quickly blamed on Israel – cast a shadow over vital ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at salvaging the international deal intended to block Iran’s route to creating a nuclear arsenal.
Iranian state TV said on Saturday that intelligence officials had named Reza Karimi, a 43-year-old born in the city Kashan, as the “perpetrator of this sabotage”.
The report accused Mr Karimi of fleeing the country “hours before” the attack at the Ahmadi Roshan facility, which Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gave as justification for Tehran’s decision to start enriching uranium to a purity of up to 60 per cent – levels well above the 3.67 per cent limit enshrined in the nuclear deal currently under discussion and strong enough to be used in a so-called “dirty bomb”.
“Necessary steps are under way for his arrest and return to the country through legal channels,” the report said, also broadcasting an image which appeared to show an Interpol Red Notice seeking Mr Karimi’s arrest.
The arrest notice was not available on Interpol’s public-facing database at the time of publication, and the international agency did not respond to a request by The Independent for clarification on whether one had been issued.
The apparent Interpol Red Notice listed his travel history as including Ethiopia, Kenya, the Netherlands, Qatar, Romania, Turkey, Uganda and the United Arab Emirates. The state TV report did not elaborate how Mr Karimi would have gained access to one of the most secure facilities in the Islamic Republic.
Alireza Zakani, an MP who heads up the Iranian parliament’s research centre, was quoted widely this week as saying the attack had damaged and destroyed thousands of centrifuges – machines used to refine uranium. However, no other official has offered such an estimate, and no photos of the aftermath have been released.
Israel has not officially confirmed or denied involvement, but media outlets in the country initially reported that the damage was the result of a cyberattack, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying hours after the attack that “the struggle against Iran and its proxies and the Iranian armament efforts is a huge mission”. A previous Mossad-CIA operation in 2010 targeted the facility with a computer virus, reportedly setting Iran’s nuclear ambitions back several years.
But the TV report by Islamic Republic Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) on Saturday spoke of a “limited explosion of a small part of the electricity-feeding path to the centrifuges' hall”, adding: “The explosion happened because of the function of explosive materials and there was no cyberattack.”
The report also showed centrifuges in a hall, as well as what appeared to be caution tape at the Natanz facility. In one shot, a reporter interviewed an unnamed technician, who said: “The sound that you are hearing is the sound of operating machines that are fortunately undamaged.”
The man – filmed from behind to hide his identity – claimed that “many of the centrifuge chains that faced defects are now under control, adding: “Part of the work that had been disrupted will be back on track with the round-the-clock efforts of my colleagues.”
Meanwhile, in Vienna, negotiations seeking to rescue the nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), continued on Saturday, with diplomats on both sides suggesting difficult progress had been made.
“We think that the talks have reached a stage where parties are able to begin to work on a joint draft,” said Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi. “It seems that a new understanding is taking shape, and now there is agreement over final goals.”
And Enrique Mora, the European Union official who chaired the talks, tweeted that “progress has been made in a far from easy task”, adding: “We need now more detailed work.”
Saturday’s meeting saw diplomats from the five powers remaining in the deal – the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – reconvene for talks, with expert-level working groups on sanctions lifting and nuclear activities set to continue in the coming week.
Despite several failed attempts to resume negotiations, it is the first time such a meeting has been held since former US president Donald Trump announced in 2018 that he was pulling out of the deal struck by his predecessor Barack Obama three years prior, and was reimposing punishing economic sanctions on Iran, which has since been wracked by recession.
While the White House’s new occupant Joe Biden is keen to rejoin the nuclear deal, Tehran’s interest lies – ahead of looming elections – in seeing the lifting of sanctions, the impacts of which have been felt harshly by Iranian residents.
While one EU diplomat told Agence France-Presse earlier this week that Sunday’s attack and Iran’s nuclear response had “complicated” discussions in Vienna, Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think tank was quoted as saying that the events had added “urgency” to the talks by reminding “both parties that the status quo is a lose-lose situation”.
“It is clear that the more the diplomatic process drags on, the higher the risk that it gets derailed by saboteurs and those acting in bad faith,” Mr Vaez said.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, and an annual US intelligence report released on Tuesday maintained the longtime American assessment that Iran isn’t currently trying to build a nuclear bomb.
The country’s newly announced intention to enrich uranium up to 60 per cent purity would still fall significantly below the 90 per cent purity required for a modern nuclear weapon – but it is three times higher than its previous efforts.
Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60 per cent for nuclear-powered ships, however it currently has no such ships in its navy.
Additional reporting by AP