Informed sources are confirming reports that there was a major explosion at a uranium enrichment plant at an Iranian nuclear facility in Fordow last week. However, the White House believes the reports are not credible and Iran denies that anything is amiss, but a variety of news items coming out of Israel and Iran point to the likelihood that something significant is happening in the region.
Perhaps loath to embarrass Iran publicly and force it into a confrontation, Israel is keeping quiet—for the most part. Some foreign press accounts note that Israeli intelligence officials, unnamed, are confirming the news. Perhaps more noteworthy, Israel’s Civil Defense Minister and former head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, seemed to go against standard operating procedure by commenting on a suspected Israeli clandestine operation. “Any explosion in Iran which does not harm people but harms Iran's assets,” said Dichter, “is a blessing.”
Over the weekend there was news of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet’s “intense” consultations. According to reports, Jerusalem has deployed two Iron Dome missile defense batteries to the north—one near the port city of Haifa, and another in the Galilee region—a move that Israeli spokesmen explain is only part of a regular, scheduled rotation all over the country. However, taken in tandem with Jerusalem’s public concerns that Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime may itself use chemical weapons against Israel or transfer them to Hezbollah or that the arsenal may fall into the hands of Islamist rebels, the speculation is that the Iron Dome batteries have been moved to intercept Syrian missiles carrying chemical weapons.
However, there is no obvious reason why Assad is more likely to use or transfer those weapons now more than any other time during the last two years since the uprising began; or why the rebels are more likely now to appropriate them and divert resources from their existential war with the regime to tangle with Israel. Perhaps more to the point, the Iron Dome is not designed to intercept the kind of missiles that can carry chemical weapons payloads. The likelier scenario is that Israel is girding itself in the event that Hezbollah is called upon to retaliate for the Fordow operation, using the Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles that Iron Dome is designed to stop.
The Islamic Republic seeded Hezbollah and continues to support it for no other purpose than to advance Iranian interests, including deterrence on behalf of its nuclear weapons program. However, at present the Islamic resistance is hemmed in with its own problems and will have to think twice before taking up arms on behalf of Tehran. “Hezbollah is not in a great position to start a major conflict when their strategic depth in Syria is in shambles,” says Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They also have guys on the ground in Syria. And they would need to suspend support for the Assad regime in order to mobilize against Israel. That would make their position as well as the regime’s more vulnerable in Damascus, Homs, and border areas, where the bulk of their forces in Syria are fighting.”
The Iranians, who also have a vital interest in Assad’s survival, presumably understand Hezbollah’s vulnerability—as well as their own. Lacking a way to strike back at Israel, if there was an operation at Fordow, allegedly trapping more than 200 workers, the regime would want to keep the news quiet so as not to damage its prestige. Michael Ross, a former Mossad operations officer, wonders if the fact that Iran’s intelligence ministry has shut down four newspapers and arrested more than a dozen journalists is related to the operation at Fordow. “The Fordow facility is located at a Revolutionary Guards’ base,” says Ross. “So it’s easy to seal off. But if there was an explosion of that magnitude, you’d think someone would eventually have to report something.”
In the meantime, as Israel is moving to shore up its defenses, Iran is quiet.