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[Bobby Ghosh] Klaxons should be sounding in US after hit on Natanz

Beware the fog of propaganda around the Natanz attack. But beware, too, what the attack portends: a real escalation in the confrontation between Iran and Israel. And finally, beware any claims that the Biden administration is pivoting away from the Middle East.

At the time of writing, it is not clear whether the damage to Iran’s largest uranium-enrichment facility over the weekend was the result of a cyberattack or sabotage by human hand. The regime in Tehran says Israel was responsible, and reports in Jerusalem seem to confirm that was indeed the case.

Amid the cumulonimbus of conjecture that has inevitably followed, it is best to ignore the claims and counter-claims about the extent of the damage wrought, and of the implications for Iran’s enrichment program. The New York Times, quoting unnamed Israeli and American officials, reports it will be nine months before the Natanz facility is fully repaired. Tehran’s spin is that only old centrifuges were affected, and that these will be replaced by new, more efficient machines -- and so, in effect, Israel did the Islamic Republic a favor.

Just as ineludible, there will be speculation about the timing of the attack, which coincides with a diplomatic ferment: the visit of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Israel, the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Iran, and of course the resumption of talks in Vienna, aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and the world powers.

It is only in Hollywood potboilers that saboteurs synchronize their subversion to the geopolitical calendar. In the real world, an attack on what must be Iran’s most carefully guarded site would have taken months, even years of planning and patience, its execution dependent not on the diplomatic docket but on opportunity.

If an almanac was consulted at all, the planners would have drawn as circle around Iran’s “National Nuclear Technology Day,” an annual ritual in which the regime seeks to distract attention from its multitudinous failures by pretending that the enrichment of uranium is a significant achievement. This was on the diary long before Austin and Lavrov made their travel plans, and delegations booked hotel rooms in Vienna.

This year, President Hassan Rouhani used the occasion to launch an array of 200 advanced centrifuges. Within 24 hours, his government was claiming that an electrical accident had blacked out Natanz, then blaming it on sabotage by Israel and finally pledging “revenge against the Zionists.”

If there is a message to be read into the Natanz attack, it is simply this: The nuclear program is a giant target on Iran’s back. The attack on the enrichment facility comes less than six months after the assassination of Tehran’s top nuclear-weapons expert, which has likewise been attributed to Israel. It will not be the last.

Iran’s nuclear program exists for the sole purpose of menacing its neighbors. The bigger the program gets, the more threatening it becomes.

Israel has damaged the program before, by using cyberattacks like the Stuxnet worm and assassinations of nuclear scientists. This campaign halted when Iran appeared to slow the program in the lead-up to the negotiations for the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It resumed after Tehran, reacting to the US withdrawal from that deal, revved up the centrifuges again.

The confrontation between the two countries has recently escalated in other theaters, notably reciprocal attacks on shipping: Israel has targeted tankers carrying Iranian oil to Syria in the Red Sea and Mediterranean, and Iran has rocketed Israeli-owned shipping in the Arabian Sea. Off the Yemeni coast last week, Israel hit an Iranian vessel used to deploy commando boats.

If President Joe Biden was not already alarmed by these skirmishes at sea, the Natanz attack should have set off klaxons in the White House. For all that the new administration is keen to deprioritize the Middle East in US foreign policy, the escalating Iranian-Israeli confrontation will demand more American attention, not less.

The risk of Iranian retaliation for Natanz is hard to gauge: Tehran has a long list of unavenged affronts. But even if Iran simply follows through on its threat to enrich still more uranium, Israel will feel obliged to step up its efforts to undermine the nuclear program.

Until now, Israel’s attacks have exacted remarkably little collateral damage among the Iranian populace. Nor have Iran and its proxies claimed casualties among Israelis. But as the hostilities escalate, so too will the likelihood that blood will be spilled. That, more than anything else, should be at the top of the minds of the diplomats heading to Jerusalem, Tehran and Vienna.

Bobby Ghosh
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.