Vienna talks resume amid tensions as Iran names suspect in Natanz attack

State television named 43-year-old Reza Karimi as a suspect in the attack on the nuclear facility.
Saturday 17/04/2021
EU senior official Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi at the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, April 17, 2021. (REUTERS)
EU senior official Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araghchi at the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, April 17, 2021. (REUTERS)

TEHRAN--Tensions are at an all-time high Saturday, with Iran naming a suspect in the attack on its Natanz nuclear facility that damaged centrifuges there. According to Iran, the suspect had fled the country “hours before” the sabotage happened.

While the extent of the damage from the April 11 sabotage remains unclear, it comes as Iran tries to negotiate with world powers over allowing the US to re-enter its tattered nuclear deal with world powers and lift the economic sanctions it faces.

Already, Iran has begun enriching uranium up to 60% purity in response — three times higher than ever before, though in small quantities. The sabotage and Iran’s response to it also have further inflamed tensions across the Mideast, where a shadow war between Tehran and Israel, the prime suspect in the sabotage, still rages.

 Main suspect 

State television named the suspect as 43-year-old Reza Karimi. It showed a passport-style photograph of a man it identified as Karimi, saying he was born in the nearby city of Kashan, Iran.

The report also aired what appeared to be an Interpol “red notice” seeking his arrest. The arrest notice was not immediately accessible on Interpol’s public-facing database. Interpol, based in Lyon, France, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The TV report said “necessary actions” are underway to bring Karimi back to Iran through legal channels, without elaborating. The supposed Interpol “red notice” listed his foreign travel history as including Ethiopia, Kenya, the Netherlands, Qatar, Romania, Turkey, Uganda and the United Arab Emirates.
 

An image grab from Iran TV broadcast  shows the portrait of a man identified as Reza Karimi alleged suspect in the atatck on Natanz Uranium Enrichment facility. (AP)
An image grab from Iran TV broadcast  shows the portrait of a man identified as Reza Karimi alleged suspect in the atatck on Natanz Uranium Enrichment facility. (AP)

The report did not elaborate how Karimi would have gotten access to one of the most secure facilities in the Islamic Republic. However, it did for the first time offer authorities acknowledging an explosion struck the Natanz facility.

There was a “limited explosion of a small part of the electricity-feeding path to the centrifuges’ hall,” the TV report said. “The explosion happened because of the function of explosive materials and there was no cyberattack.”

Initial reports in Israeli media, which maintain close relations to its military and intelligence services, blamed a cyberattack for the damage.

Explosion or cyberattack? 

The Iranian state TV report also said there were images that corroborated the account of an explosion rather than cyberattack offered by security services, but it did not broadcast those pictures.

The report also showed centrifuges in a hall, as well as what appeared to be caution tape up at the Natanz facility. In one shot, a TV reporter interviewed an unnamed technician, who was shown from behind — likely a safety measure as Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in suspected Israeli-orchestrated attacks in the past.

“The sound that you are hearing is the sound of operating machines that are fortunately undamaged,” he said, the high-pitched whine of the centrifuges heard in the background. “Many of the centrifuge chains that faced defects are now under control. Part of the work that had been disrupted will be back on track with the round-the-clock efforts of my colleagues.”

Talks in Vienna 

In Vienna, negotiations continued over the deal Saturday. The European Union said the talks would involve EU officials and representatives from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran.

The talks are aimed at determining which sanctions the United States should lift and the measures Iran has to take to come into compliance with the accord.

The Russian ambassador to Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, spoke of “slow but steady progress in the negotiations on restoration of the nuclear deal” on Twitter.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, confirmed Iran was now producing uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, taking the country closer to the 90 percent level required for use in a nuclear weapon.

“The enrichment of uranium to 60 percent is underway” in Natanz, he said, quoted by Tasnim news agency.

The 2015 accord, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in 2018, prevented Iran from stockpiling enough high-enriched uranium to be able to pursue a nuclear weapon if it chose in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, though the West and the IAEA say Tehran had an organised military nuclear programme up until the end of 2003. An annual US intelligence report released Tuesday maintained the longtime American assessment that Iran isn’t currently trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Iran previously had said it could use uranium enriched up to 60% for nuclear-powered ships. However, the Islamic Republic currently has no such ships in its navy.

The attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in its electrical grid — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

One Iranian official referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.