The explosion that caught Iran by surprise!

On April 11, a large explosion rocked the Natanz uranium enrichment site, where Iran operated its advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges, 250 miles south of Tehran.  With its electrical supply cut off, Iran's nuclear plans suffered a severe blow.  For that reason, the explosion marked a turning point in the recent round of negotiations between Iran and Western countries.

According to specialists, Iran needs at least nine months to return to the situation before the blast.  With the nuclear plant down, the Iranians lost a powerful tool for their efforts to blackmail the international community and extract more concessions in ongoing negotiations.

At the domestic level, the explosion also dealt a major blow to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who's been meddling with Iran's upcoming presidential election in June 2021.  With Iran's economy on the verge of collapse, which could trigger social unrest and widespread uprisings, Khamenei had hoped the recent negotiations in Vienna would lead to Biden lifting all sanctions against Iran, giving the Iranian economy some breathing room.

However, the Natanz explosion and the negotiations' plodding progress have stymied Khamenei's expectations.  With the threat of imminent nuclear power at its back, the regime could use threats and propaganda to instill fear in the region.  For example, in 2018, Khamenei and Rouhani threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iran was not able to sell its oil to other countries.

Addressing Trump on July 23, 2018, President Rouhani said: "Anyone who understands a little politics does not say that we will stop Iran's oil exports.  We have many straits; the Strait of Hormuz is just one of them."  Khamenei praised Rouhani's remarks, saying, "The president's remarks that 'if Iranian oil is not exported, then the oil of any state in the region will not be exported,' are important remarks that reflect the policy of the regime."  Trump called Iran's bluff, and Iran proved not to have the will or the power to make good on its threat.

Now, with Natanz seriously damaged, Iran's threats will be even more hollow.  Thus, during an Iranian state TV program, Alireza Zakani, head of the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, said, "Most of Iran's enrichment facilities have been lost."  He explained that "several thousand of our centrifuges were damaged and destroyed during the Natanz incident, and that government officials' promise to install advanced facilities was a false promise."  He claimed that "spies are rampant in Iran," without referring to a specific security agency.  He described the situation as "worrying."

Rouhani, meanwhile, has stressed that the regime needs to compromise to lift the sanctions.  "Pursuing such haste, which has no justification in foreign policy, creates the mentality at home that the gentlemen (Rouhani's government authorities) are seeking to use the negotiations for electoral purposes," the Revolutionary Guards–affiliated Young newspaper wrote, referring to Rouhani's insistence on a deal with the United States.  "Therefore, in achieving it, they are ready to improvise and ignore Iran's foreign policy outlines."

The benefit flowing to Khamenei from the Natanz disaster is that the Khamenei-affiliated factions can blame the incident on Rouhani's government.  They claim that Rouhani's government "has crossed the red lines in negotiating with the West."

The war between the two factions in Iran reflects the nature of the Iranian society's explosive conditions, which both factions fear.  On the day of the Natanz bombing on April 11, retirees and pensioners gathered for their third large New Year protest rally in 27 cities.

The pensioners were protesting government corruption and their past-due benefits.  They were chanting (regarding the upcoming election in Iran), "We will not vote anymore; we heard many lies."  In another slogan, they chanted: "They [the government[ are lying, our enemy is right here, it is not America."

The chess pieces, whether put there by internal stresses or international maneuvers, are moving rapidly.  With luck, the oppressive Iranian regime is about to be checkmated and ended.  The pawns and the other pieces representing the people of Iran are determined to win this game once and for all.

Note: I have translated the quotations from Farsi.  The links have slightly different translations but support my word choices.

The anti-aircraft guns at Natanz nuclear facility were useless against Israel's attack.  Hamed Saber photo.  CC BY 2.0.

Hassan Mahmoudi is a social analyst, researcher, independent observer, and commentator of Middle Eastern and Iranian Politics. He tweets under @hassan_mahmou1.

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