Perhaps the most significant event over the past week was the fire reported at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. It is not clear whether the fire was an accident or whether it was caused by sabotage by the United States, Israel, or those two countries working together. This explosion and fire was one of four reported across Iran over the past week, the others occurring at missile and power facilities. Some press reporting is indicating that the incident at Natanz was caused by cyber weapons similar to Stuxnet which caused the destruction of significant numbers of centrifuges in Iran’s inventory in 2010. Iranian officials are now acknowledging that the explosion and subsequent fire at Natanz has caused significant damage, possibly setting back Iran’s ability to manufacture more advanced centrifuges.
If Tehran believes that this was an attack, it must consider how and when to respond. A cyber response could be kept at a level where escalation would not take place – particularly if the target was Saudi oil infrastructure – previously a relatively soft target for Tehran. A straight military response, for instance against U.S. forces in the region, is less likely. However, several factors may increase chances for clashes. One is that Iran does not have perfect control of its proxies – either in Iraq where militias continue to fire rockets into the Green Zone where American diplomats and military forces are based – or in Yemen where Houthis continue to fire missiles and send drones against Saudi cities. A second is that U.S. force levels remain high in the region, including the ongoing deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group that has been kept deployed, in part, to lessen the chance that crews would contract COVID-19. More forces mean more chance encounters, increasing the odds of even an inadvertent clash.
Another option for Iran is simply to wait until after the U.S. election, hoping for an administration willing to return to the multilateral nuclear agreement that the Trump administration abrogated. This carries with it the possibility that sanctions will be eased, something that Iran needs, particularly in the wake of the compounding effects of COVID on its economy. Washington’s attempt this past week to bring the states of the United Nations Security Council onto its side, with regard to Iran, failed. All members of the Security Council indicated their strong preference for the 2015 nuclear agreement. However, all indications are that the Trump administration will continue its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. While Washington is not getting much support at the U.N., it can increase pressure on Tehran unilaterally though the use of military and economic tools. However, the comments by other members of the Security Council may affect Tehran’s calculus, causing it to hold out hope for different policies under a Biden administration.