- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2021

The Biden administration on Monday distanced itself from what Iranian officials claim was an Israeli sabotage operation that cut electricity to Iran’s top nuclear facility over the weekend — moving quickly to try to keep the incident from blowing up the White House’s push for direct nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.

Iranian officials vowed to “take revenge” against Israel for what intelligence sources say was likely a cyberattack that caused the major power outage at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki insisted that the developments won’t undermine delicate nuclear talks that are slated to resume with Iran on Wednesday.

Mr. Biden’s promise to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal repudiated by President Trump in 2018 has gotten off to an unexpectedly slow start. Iran is demanding a lifting of all Trump administration sanctions before it will even agree to negotiations, but “indirect” talks mediated by European countries that are still party to the accord seem to have made progress in recent days.

“We’ve not been given any indication that attendance at the discussions that will proceed on Wednesday has changed,” Mrs. Psaki told reporters, stressing that “the U.S. was not involved in any manner” in the attack on Natanz.

Iranian officials on Monday slammed Israel while playing down the damage caused by the attack. The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran dismissed reports that it would take nine months to fully restore operations at the Natanz facility, while diplomatic officials gave no sign that the Sunday attack killed Tehran’s desire to restore the 2015 deal.

European countries that labored to hold the beleaguered agreement together during the Trump years said the cyberattack would not slow down the diplomatic track.

“We reject any attempts to undermine or weaken diplomatic efforts on the nuclear agreement,” said EU spokesman Peter Stano, according to Agence France-Presse.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was visiting Israel on Sunday and Monday. His mission was seen in part to hear out Israel’s complaints about the Iran negotiations but to indicate that Washington was determined to press ahead.

Mr. Austin sought to downplay the Natanz developments in comments to reporters traveling with him Monday, although European officials who have been party to Washington’s renewed diplomatic push with Iran expressed concern that Israel may have deliberately timed the attack to undermine the Biden administration’s efforts.

The administration’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, has spent the past week in Vienna in talks with his counterparts from nations involved in the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, trying to find a path for Washington and Tehran to come back into compliance.

While the United States has been reimposing a raft of sanctions on Iran and its trading partners since Mr. Trump’s withdrawal, Iran has been ratcheting up nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile activities banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Little progress was reported as the indirect talks got underway in Vienna last week. Sources involved described the atmosphere between the U.S. and Iranian sides as tense.

Tricky diplomacy

Under the original nuclear deal, the U.S. and other world powers — China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany — eased economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to and U.N. inspections of Tehran’s suspect nuclear programs, which critics say are pushing Tehran closer to building nuclear weapons. The Biden administration has said it is prepared to lift Mr. Trump’s sanctions, but only after Tehran comes back into compliance by capping its enrichment back down to levels set by the 2015 deal.

A senior State Department official told reporters Friday that the Iranians balked at that offer during last week’s talks in Vienna.

“A question still remains about whether the seriousness of purpose and the intent of coming back into compliance that the U.S. showed would be reciprocated by Iran,” the official said. “I’d say we saw some signs of it but not — certainly not enough.”

Details remained scarce about the incident early Sunday at Natanz. It was initially described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid’s feed of the facility’s aboveground workshops and underground enrichment halls.

Israel has not directly claimed responsibility for the power outage, although multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” estimating that the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of the blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘We can limit Iran’s advance, and we have red lines.’”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is vulnerable, he said.

American and Israeli intelligence officials separately said there was an Israeli role, according to a report by The New York Times.

Seeking a ‘culprit’

Iranian state media, meanwhile, claimed Monday to have identified a “culprit” behind the “sabotage” at Natanz, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif vowed that Tehran “will take revenge for these actions on the Zionists.”

Iranian officials frequently hurl derogatory threats at Israel and often refer to the Israeli government as the “Zionist” regime.

Mr. Austin expressed U.S. solidarity with Israel during a visit to Jerusalem, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.

While the Trump administration pursued a historic strengthening of American ties with Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli conservatives — even moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017 — the Biden White House has aligned more with the Israeli left. Last week, the U.S. resumed funding for a U.N. relief agency for Palestinians that the Trump administration had cut.

Mr. Austin’s visit to Jerusalem was the first high-level trip to Israel by a Biden administration official.

At a news conference at Israel’s Nevatim air base Monday, where he viewed Israeli air and missile defense systems and its F-35 combat aircraft, Mr. Austin said the Natanz incident would not impede the Biden administration’s efforts to reimpose curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities.

“Those efforts will continue,” the defense secretary said.

The Austin visit to Jerusalem coincided with mounting international concern over a surge in Israeli military strikes on Iran-backed Hezbollah targets in Syria, as well as a spike in other “shadow war” attacks by Iranian and Israeli forces in waters around the Middle East, that vastly complicate the administration’s Iran policy.

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, disrupted and destroyed atomic centrifuges at Natanz during an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

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

⦁ Mike Glenn and Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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