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Satellite Images Reveal Damage At Iranian Nuclear Facility

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Commercial satellite images are revealing the extent of damage at a sensitive Iranian nuclear facility that caught on fire last week. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, experts believe the images indicate an act of sabotage.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The incident took place in the early hours. A building at the Natanz uranium enrichment site appeared to be heavily damaged. Iran reported to international inspectors a fire had occurred, but commercial satellite images from companies like Planet and Maxar tell a different story. They show debris scattered hundreds of feet away from the building.

FABIAN HINZ: So it's very, very likely an explosion inside the building happened.

BRUMFIEL: Fabian Hinz is a research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who specializes in Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Hinz says the building is a key facility. It was being used to study advanced centrifuges that could enrich uranium for nuclear power or a bomb.

HINZ: Sabotaging this facility would actually help quite a lot to slow things down in terms of centrifuge research and development.

BRUMFIEL: A mysterious dissident group called Cheetahs of the Homeland has claimed responsibility. But Iran analyst Ariane Tabatabai says she doubts whether that group is real.

ARIANE TABATABAI: It's hard for me to believe that there is this group, and they are sophisticated enough in their ability to conduct an attack like this, and no one has ever heard of them. It just seems like it's a bit farfetched.

BRUMFIEL: Tabatabai, who's at the German Marshall Fund, says she thinks it's more likely that Israel and maybe the U.S. are behind the incident. Neither has claimed responsibility, but in 2010, the two reportedly released a computer virus that damaged centrifuges at the same nuclear site.

Tabatabai says the explosion has occurred at a time when Iran is under extreme political stress. The Trump administration has isolated Iran even as it reels from a massive domestic outbreak of coronavirus. Given all that, she thinks this latest incident may actually motivate Iranian leaders to go the wrong way.

TABATABAI: This may set back Iran's nuclear program by a few months, but it may also push Iran to change direction and pursue a nuclear weapon.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, sabotage may give Iran's enemies a short-term advantage at a long-term cost. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.