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Serious Explosion Shakes Isfahan, Site of Iranian Nuclear Facilities

A huge explosion went off this afternoon in Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city. If this was sabotage, Isfahan was a heck of a target: not only does the city contain several experimental nuclear reactors, but just outside it is a uranium conversion facility where uranium is processed into uranium hexaflouride gas (UF6). UF6 is stockpiled at the facility and then shipped to enrichment plants in Natanz and Qom.

The explosion was big enough to be heard all over Isfahan. It caused so much alarm among the local population that the official news agencies are having a difficult time getting away with a flat denial that the explosion took place (although not for lack of trying).

There is thus a good deal of Keystone-Kops-esque running around in circles among the Iranian media right now. The deputy mayor of Isfahan confirmed the explosion to the Fars news agency, only to completely contradict himself to the Mehr news agency later in the day. (Fars evaporated the original report containing his confirmation, and the deputy mayor is now saying he never spoke to Fars at all. ) The head of the province’s judiciary told Iran’s ISNA news agency that an “explosion-like noise” was heard in Isfahan, but didn’t get any more specific. The governor of Isfahan, Alireza Zaker-Isfahani, said the boom had something to do with a military exercise and was shocked — shocked! — at the suggestion of a connection to any of the nuclear facilities. Mehr has taken the line that a gas station blew up.

No credible reports have emerged yet as to what actually exploded. Whatever it was, this is yet another in an accumulating series of explosions in Iran, the most recent of which killed seventeen Republican Guard soldiers as well as a senior officer generally considered to be the architect of Iran’s missile program. That explosion occurred two weeks ago at Bidganeh, where Iran builds and stores its long-range ballistic missiles.

No one knows who (no matter what they claim to know), but it does appear that somebody is trying to disrupt the Iranian regime’s offensive capability.

Official Iranian news organs, rather than joining the general consensus among the foreign punditocracy that Israel and/or the US was behind the Bidganeh explosion, insist that it was an accident. No matter who was behind that one, it was assessed today by Brigadier General Itai Baron, head of the IDF’s Intelligence Research Department, as having severely dented Iran’s surface-to-surface missile capability.  (For what it’s worth, Baron categorically denied that Israel had anything to do with it.)

As I noted in that earlier piece on the explosions, Michael Ledeen at Pajamas Media thinks the assumption of Israeli or American involvement in these explosions — while a temptingly tidy narrative — is hogwash. According to him, swallowing such an assumption whole, without evidence, distracts from the real story: a swing by the heretofore nonviolent Iranian Green movement (i.e., the Iranian opposition) toward all-out guerrilla war. As a commenter on my earlier piece pointed out, Ledeen appears to be as light on the evidence front as any other pundit, so we’ll reserve judgement until he’s more forthcoming about his own sources. It’s worth thinking about, though, because a strategic shift of this kind by the Greens could represent an opportunity for the Obama administration to redeem itself for its prior refusal to assist the pro-democracy, anti-Islamist movement.

Caution is advised, however. I reiterate that not only are the perpetrators (if there were any) of today’s explosion unknown, but it’s unclear what happened in the first place. All we can say from a distance is that a pattern of violence appears to be developing. Whether the explosions are the work of the Greens on their own, the Greens with US help, the Israelis covertly, or the Israelis in concert with either party, they’re giving the regime some extremely anxious moments. It remains to be seen whether the mullahs — who have already responded internally against the Greens’ leadership — will respond on a grander scale by taking preemptive offensive action against any of the targets they’ve rattled off in the recent past. (Israel tops the list; Turkey — for all the rhetoric — seems a much less appealing option for them.) If things continue the way they’re going, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll be too crippled too quickly to get a major offensive off the ground no matter what their intentions.