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Illustration by Security Management

Disruption at Iranian Atomic Site Called ‘Nuclear Terrorism’

Amid negotiations to restore a global nuclear peace agreement, Iran has described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility as an act of “nuclear terrorism,” the Associated Press reports. The exact nature of the incident remains unclear, but Iranian media reported a devastating cyberattack, which triggered a blackout through the electrical grid on Saturday.

The latest attack will set back Tehran’s nuclear program by nine months, U.S. intelligence sources told The New York Times. Two intelligence officials briefed on the damage said it had been caused by a large explosion, which destroyed the independent internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges at Natanz. The explosion makes it less likely that the disruption was cyber-based, according to the Times. Because the Natanz complex has its own well-protected power grid, plus multiple backup systems and layers of security, it is likely that there was a physical infiltration or component involved, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

An Iranian civilian nuclear program spokesperson, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told Iranian state TV that there were no casualties or damage in the attack, but as the Times points out, Iran has a history of offering such assessments immediately after sabotage and then revising them later.

Iranian officials were quick to blame Israel for the failure, potentially further heightening tensions between the two countries. Multiple Israeli media outlets reported on Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout, although Israel has not commented on the incident directly, according to the BBC.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, pledged to “seriously improve” Iran’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions, according to the AP. “While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi told Iranian state TV.

This is not the first sabotage attempt at the Natanz facility. Discovered in 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges. In July, a fire and explosion struck a centrifuge production plant at Natanz—an incident later described as sabotage.