The Iranians say accident … for now. However, Tehran also hasn’t said much about what precisely exploded overnight, and more precisely where. The explosion in the Parchin area lit up the night sky, prompting social-media uploads from residents living near the controversial nuclear-research site. The Guardian collected a few of them for this short clip:
That’s one impressive explosion, and what looks like a sustained fire afterward. The videos are far enough away that they can’t pinpoint what exploded or where, but the Iranians have two key assets nearby: the Parchin facility that has long been a point of contention for the IAEA, and the Khojir missile base.
Tehran officially called it a gas explosion involving an industrial tank, in a civilian area of the city. At least for now, that’s the story that suits the mullahs:
An explosion took place at an Iranian gas storage facility in an area which houses a sensitive military site near the capital Tehran, a defense ministry spokesman told state TV on Friday.
The explosion took place in the “public area” of Parchin, said the spokesman, Davoud Abdi, as opposed to the military site, where Western security services believe Tehran carried out tests relevant to nuclear bomb detonations more than a decade ago. Iran has denied this.
Abdi said the fire was brought under control and there were no casualties. He did not give any information about the cause of the blast.
The Wall Street Journal wonders how long that story will stick. The Israelis and the US have warned about secret research at Parchin for nearly two decades. Barack Obama’s deal with Iran largely left Parchin alone, even though work on nuclear weapons continued right under the previous administration’s noses. That makes it a tempting target, for propagandists if nothing else.
Or could the explosion have been something else?
Friday’s explosion is likely to raise questions about whether the incident was an accident or sabotage.
Iran has in the past accused Israel of targeting its facilities. Between 2010 and 2012, four scientists working on Iran’s nuclear program were assassinated. Iran accused Israel of complicity in the killings. Israel didn’t respond to the accusations.
Most recently, Iranian officials in May said hackers had damaged a small number of computers in a failed cyberattack in the port of Bandar Abbas. The alleged attempt followed a cyberattack in April on Israel’s water systems, which Iran is suspected of orchestrating.
In 2011, a large explosion destroyed vast parts of the Bidganeh arsenal at a missile base about 30 miles west of the capital, killing 17 members of the Revolutionary Guard, including Hassan Moqaddam, the most central figure in the development of Iran’s missile program. Tehran claimed that the explosion was an accident and didn’t involve sabotage by foreign powers.
It’s not even certain yet that the explosion took place at the research facility. The Iranians claim it wasn’t, but as the WSJ points out, the Iranians recently claimed it hadn’t shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet outside of Tehran, too. Their track record on truth-telling is somewhere below the Weekly World News on a good day. If it did involve the Parchin research facility, one would think the Iranians would jump at the chance to blame the Great and Little Satans (the US and Israel, for those who haven’t played Iranian Propaganda Bingo for a while). That might be especially true now, when the mullahs in Tehran have a greater need than ever to distract Iranians from the anger and discontent they’re already feeling with the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guard police state.
The lack of propaganda use suggests two possibilities. One, it really was a civilian accident that didn’t involve the research facility. Two, the Iranians botched an experiment at Parchin and blew it up themselves by accident. There’s a third possibility, too: someone successfully conducted a sabotage operation and wiped out their ability to research and produce nuclear-weapons explosives. That might be something that Iranian propagandists might not want to admit to its captive public.
Which is it? Or is it some other possibility? Time might tell, but if it’s not the first and official explanation, my guess is that the regime will keep it as quiet as possible.
Update: At least thus far, it doesn’t look like the “accident” narrative has many takers:
Many Iranians on social media also cast doubt on the government’s account of Friday’s explosion. Trust between the Iranian public and the government has eroded in the past few months as a series of crises, from protests to the shooting down of a Ukrainian Airlines airliner and the coronavirus pandemic, have taken a toll after the public demanded answers and the government failed to be transparent.
“Chernobyl series part one,” tweeted Morteza Seydabadi. “Gas explosion near a military base? Do you think we are stupid?”
US experts aren’t buying it either:
“Parchin is basically the largest military explosive manufacturing site in Iran,” said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. “They produce artillery rockets there, and had tests related to nuclear weapons designs before 2003.”
Afghon Ostovar, an Iran scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that given Iran’s sensitivity about the base, “it’s easy to smell a possible cover-up.”
He added: “It could have also been an accident at a military site, possibly involving fuel for ballistic missiles. A third possibility, of course, is that it wasn’t an accident but rather a form of sabotage.”
Stay tuned. This might be the Ukrainian jet airliner all over again.