- The Washington Times - Monday, August 24, 2020

Explosions — literal and figurative — continue to rock the Middle East, and they have Iran and its allies increasingly on edge.

A day after Tehran admitted for the first time that last month’s explosion at its Natanz nuclear site was a deliberate act of sabotage, a giant explosion on Monday destroyed a major gas pipeline in Syria and cut off electricity for most of the country.

Many in the region are quick to blame — or credit — Israel or the U.S. for the explosions, but few doubt recent events mark a significant escalation in the brazenness of such attacks and counterattacks.

Syrian Oil Minister Ali Ghanem told state media Monday that the explosion caused a massive fire and struck a crucial power line near the suburb of Dumair, northeast of the capital that feeds electricity to three stations in southern Syria.

He called the incident “a cowardly terrorist attack,” and told reporters that the pipeline pumps an estimated 7 million cubic meters of natural gas, supplying most of Syria’s electricity.

The Trump administration’s special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said that the incident was “almost certainly a strike” by the terror group Islamic State, which is fighting both U.S. allies and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mr. Jeffrey, who is in Geneva for U.N.-led talks with the Syrian government, said that there has been an uptick in ISIS activity in eastern and southeastern Syria close to the borders with Jordan and Iraq.

Last month, the group carried out at least 23 attacks in Syria alone, according to data compiled by the Counter Extremism Project. Those attacks were aimed mostly at forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

Despite the group’s resurgence, no one has claimed responsibility for several attacks on Syria’s oil and gas infrastructure over the last several years.

Syria is far from alone at a target for attempts to disrupt power infrastructure in the Middle East.

Last month, a mysterious, roaring fire broke out at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site, about 150 miles south of the capital Tehran.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI) at the time acknowledged “significant” damage to the site, and over the weekend finally admitted the explosion was the result of “sabotage.”

“Security investigations confirm this was sabotage and what is certain is that an explosion took place in Natanz,” spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi said on Sunday.

“But how this explosion took place and with what materials security authorities will reveal in due time the reason behind the [Natanz] blast,” he was quoted by state news outlet IRNA.

In the days following the explosion, the publication claimed that the incident could have been potential sabotage by adversaries such as Israel or the U.S. but it stopped short of accusing either country.

Private analysts, however, believe a newly emboldened Israel could be behind the Natanz explosion.

“Israel would be sending a strong political message to Tehran that it would not allow Tehran to go nuclear,” Sina Azodi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Monday. The strike, he added, would “leave a psychological impact on Iranians that Israel can penetrate Iran’s security apparatus and strike deep inside Iran.”

Mr. Azodi, a specialist in Iran’s nuclear program, said that while the U.S. may not be directly involved in the incident, Iranians see it as the continuation of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, implemented by Washington’s closest ally in the region.

“You could say that the political and economic campaign is transforming into a more direct physical attack to disrupt Iran’s plan of waiting out the Trump administration,” he said.

The fire spread to a central centrifuge assembly workshop, according to the BBC. Centrifuges are necessary to produce enriched uranium which can be used for nuclear weapons as well as to make reactor fuel.

According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency published earlier this month, Iran was attempting to increase its uranium enrichment at the facility, which would be a violation of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Iran says it is the Trump administration who first breached the terms of the accord after Mr. Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018.

Iran’s latest claims come as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarks on a week-long trip to Israel, Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

On Monday, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where the secretary vowed to protect Israel’s military advantage.

“The United States has a legal requirement with respect to qualitative military edge,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters. “We will continue to honor that.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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