Sat. Sep 18th, 2021

The Iranian foreign minister has accused Israel of making a “very bad gamble” following an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, which he said would only make negotiations over Tehran’s return to a 2015 nuclear deal more difficult.

“Israel played a very bad gamble if it thought that the attack will weaken Iran’s hand in the nuclear talks,” Javad Zarif said at a news conference in the Iranian capital. “On the contrary, it will strengthen our position.”

Zarif spoke alongside the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who also condemned the alleged Israeli strike on Iran’s most important nuclear site, the second within a year.

Israel has not confirmed its involvement. However, the country’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, called for an inquiry into a leak of information, saying Israel’s traditional policy of ambiguity was being compromised, possibly due to inter-agency rivalry.

The US has said it played no role in the sophisticated attack “in any manner”, but has left unclear whether it was given advance warning of Israel’s actions. There is some concern that US intelligence officials may have leaked the details in a sign of disapproval, possibly as it could upend Joe Biden’s attempts to move ahead with negotiations that Israel opposes.

The attack has at minimum disrupted finely balanced talks due to start on Wednesday in Vienna between Iran and the US on the two countries’ mutual return to full compliance with the nuclear deal constraining Iran’s nuclear activities.

Zarif said there had been no loss of bargaining leverage in Vienna, adding the plant would receive more advanced replacement centrifuges shortly. He said there was a timer on the talks in Vienna. Without elaborating, he said: “If they miss this opportunity, they’ll face unpleasant conditions.”

However, the chairman of the Islamic Parliament Research Center, Alireza Zakani, said several thousand centrifuges were now out of order at Natanz. He claimed 300lbs of explosives were smuggled into the highly guarded plant without being noticed. He claimed the explosives had been planted in a desk.

Zakani claimed the attack had been part of a western plot to force Iran to make concessions in the talks, but he said Iran should respond by increasing the level of uranium enrichment to 60%.

Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy commission, said the perpetrators had hit an electricity substation 50 metres underground. “The design of the enemy was very beautiful, if I look at it scientifically. They … hired their experts, and it exploded in a way that damaged both that power distribution system and the emergency cable that came from the generators.”

Despite the anger, Seyed Araghchi, the lead Iranian negotiator, went ahead with his plans to fly to Vienna for the restart of talks likely to be focused on the sanctions that the US is prepared to lift in return for Iran coming back into compliance with the deal. China and Russia, both involved in the Vienna talks, along with UK, France and Germany, have urged Iran not to pull out, arguing this would play into Israel’s hands.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, came the closest of any senior European official to criticising the attack, saying it was not a positive contribution. Araghchi is bound to push the US to give an explanation of its knowledge of the attack, and to demand a condemnation.

The attack is hardly likely to make the Iranians more flexible in their negotiating stance, and much now depends on whether the US will lift all sanctions imposed on Iran since 2016, or only those classified as linked to the nuclear deal. The Biden administration has said some of the sanctions are not nuclear related, but instead triggered by Iranian human rights violations, support for terrorism in the region and by Iran’s missile programme.

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