In the early morning hours of June 26, Iran was rocked by two significant explosions.
The known and admitted facts
These events are shrouded in mystery, and even more speculation, but this is what is currently known:
- An explosion occurred in or near the Iran’s Parchin military base. Iranian press was forced to admit the event since it was seen as a huge fireball as far away as the Parvaz district of Tehran 25 miles and widely distributed within minutes on social media, and even the state-run Fars new agency. (see: https://mobile.twitter.com/farsnews_agency/status/1276298467904835585) Iran claimed it was large propane tank which had exploded, and released a video the following morning: (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f11rWgSdINM)
- The second explosion reportedly happened near Shiraz, which was plunged into darkness. The Iranian government was also forced to admit this explosion, and claimed a power plant exploded and caught fire, causing the widespread power outage.
- The Iraqi government launched a significant operation to clear out the Iraqi Hizballah forces from near the green Zone in Baghdad, and arrested some of its leadership as well as Iranians.
- All three of these events happened within a span of an hour.
Parchin is an identified nuclear weapons program site in which Iran was conducting high-explosives and warhead design and testing. The Iranians claim the blast was in a non-military gas farm, and not in a nuclear facility.
Shiraz has several sites of nuclear weapons development interest:
- Rudan Nuclear Research Center, located near the town of Fasa near Shiraz in Fars Province where yellowcake is reportedly produced.
- Fars 10 megawatt pool-type research reactor, schedule to come online this year.
- Shiraz missile plant facility
- The Bushehr nuclear power plant, as well as Abadeh, which Israel revealed in 2019 was a critical nuclear storage site. Both are within 100 kms south and north of Shriaz respectively. The Bushehr power plant supplies electricity to Shiraz. Abadeh was reportedly dismantled following Israel’s revelation, and its replacement site has not been publicly revealed.
The video released by Iranian TV showing the Parchin site explosion and the exploded propane tank contains considerable evidence of its misrepresentation:
- The “exploded” fuel tank has a small hole – hardly what one would expect from a fireball seen from 25 KM away – and was on the top of the tank in the middle.
- All the burn marks came from the direction of behind the cameraman, although the hole in the tank was on top in front of the cameraman. The tank did not have any burn marks around the hole.
- The fuel tank next to it was removed from its cradle and pushed back away from the cameras – consistent with a blast coming from an area behind the cameraman.
- The broad hillside far away from the fuel tanks was scorched far more than the fuel tank explosion could have caused.
In short, it is clear that whatever caused all the damage and scorching came from an area behind the cameraman, which was carefully never shown, and not from the tank pictured itself.
Neither the U.S. nor Israel have questioned publicly Iran’s claim that it was all just a fuel tank in Parchin coinciding with an explosion in Shiraz.
Still, there has been speculation that this may have been a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program. The simultaneity of the action in Baghdad to protect the Green Zone and the US embassy – the frequent “go-to” site for Iran to conduct real-time retaliations stimulated the speculation further.
While it would be unclear if the United States would claim responsibility for an attack on Iranian nuclear sites, Israel would likely not confirm it under any circumstances, which is in line with its behavior when it attacks sites in Syria. In the last decade, Israeli security services “gamed out” Iranian reactions to a potential Israeli strike, and the most frequent reaction was reported to have been that Iran would do everything it could to claim it was an non-nuclear related accident in order to avoid the need to escalate in retaliation. Israel would acquiesce in any Iranian attempt to avoid admitting a humiliating blow that would drive a dangerous escalation along its north and southern borders.
At the same time, if this event were just a coincidentally simultaneous string of accidents, the climate is such in Iran that social media claims abound that it was clearly an attack and the government’s denials are dismissed as simply reflecting fear. The killing of Soleimani last winter, and several successful cyber attacks by Israel lately, have additionally driven home the point that Iran’s government is incapable of protecting itself from either US or Israeli attacks. As such, the Iranian government is in the unenviable position, even if it were an accident, of facing public skepticism and humiliation about which the regime would be clearly anxious.