Things keep blowing up in Iran. On Monday the big bang was in Isfahan, and the black smoke billowed from the direction of the nuclear plant on the edge of the city. More than 24 hours later, Iran’s official news sites had taken down an initial report and photograph and were offering an array of conflicting accounts instead. But if it was not yet even known exactly what blew up, the conclusions being rushed to were plain enough: 1) that it was something either military, or atomic, or both, and 2) that Israel had somehow caused it to happen.
Support for this view arrived a few hours later in Israel’s northern Galilee region, in the form of four 122-mm Katyusha rockets. The rockets, which caused no injuries, were launched from southern Lebanon, which is controlled by Hizballah, a client of Iran. If the timing was a coincidence, it was a nice-sized one: There’s been no attack like it for more than two years.
“How many missiles have they prepared themselves for?” Iran’s defense minister asked on Sunday, speaking of Israel. “10,000? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000, 150,000 or more?” Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi made his remarks before 50,000 volunteer recruits at Bushehr, site of Iran’s newly minted nuclear power reactor.
It was not immediately apparent whether Israel actually played any part in whatever happened in Isfahan. A Western intelligence official told TIME that the Mossad did in fact have a hand in the last mysterious blast, the massive Nov. 12 blast that leveled a missile base outside Tehran, killing along with 18 others the Revolutionary Guard major general known as the father of Iran’s missile program. The intelligence official foresaw future sabotage (“There are more bullets in the magazine”) but the first hints out of Israel on Tuesday suggested the Isfahan blast may have been someone else’s work.
“Not every explosion over there should be tied to reconnaissance and stories from the movies,” Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister for intelligence and atomic matters, told Army Radio. Saying, “it isn’t right to expand on this topic,” Meridor nonetheless went on to acknowledge that espionage has set back Iran’s nuclear program. “There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways,” Meridor said.
A former director of Israel’s national security council, retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, told the station the Isfahan blast was no accident. “There aren’t many coincidences,” he said, “and when there are so many events there is probably some sort of guiding hand, though perhaps it’s the hand of God.”
At least two other major explosions have occurred at Iranian bases associated with the Shahab-3, the medium-range missile that the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran has tried to adapt to carry a future nuclear warhead. Beyond that, at least three of Iran’s nuclear scientists have been assassinated, including one described as the leading mind in the country’s nuclear effort. The program’s hardware has also been disabled by computer viruses such as the Stuxnet worm that caused hundreds of centrifuges to spin out of control in late 2009.
Isfahan, located 200 miles south of Tehran, is Iran’s third-largest city and loveliest by a long chalk. Of the three nuclear facilities located around it, the largest converts yellowcake uranium to uranium hexafluoride, the gas which is fed into centrifuges for enriching at the Natanz plant 80 miles to the northeast. If enriched to 20%, the fuel is suitable for providing power. Uranium enriched to around 80% is suitable for nuclear weapons.