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Iran alleges attack on one of its nuclear facilities as international talks reach critical juncture

·4-min read
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi in a meeting in Vienna (Reuters)
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi in a meeting in Vienna (Reuters)

Iran alleged yet another attempted attack on one of its nuclear installations even as international talks to roll back its atomic research and development programmes reached a crucial juncture.

Iranian news websites described an alleged act of sabotage that was thwarted Wednesday morning at a facility belonging to Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.

A report by the Nour news website, which is affiliated with Iran’s all-important Supreme National Security Council, did not identify the facility. But other news organisations suggested it was a research facility dating back to the 1970s, located just to the west of the capital, Tehran. Social media accounts described a possible attempt to infiltrate the facility using an aerial drone.

No casualties or damage were reported.

“Due to measures taken beforehand for protecting buildings belonging to the Atomic Energy Organisation, this morning’s act was foiled before damaging the building,” said the report by Nour. “Those behind the sabotage failed to carry out their plan.”

The purported attack came just days after a mysterious shutdown of Iran’s 1,000MW Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant, which rests on the northern edge of the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, world powers are preparing to gather in Vienna, along with Iran, in an effort to revive a deal to limit the country’s nuclear programme. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was forged in 2015 by Tehran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia.

Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Araqchi was quoted by state media as saying that he had briefed both incumbent president Hassan Rouhani and president-elect Ebrahim Raisi ahead of another round of discussions. He added that the Supreme National Security Council, a body which includes supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other leaders of the regime, may decide on whether to return to the deal at an emergency meeting.

Mr Raisi, who was elected Iran’s next president on Friday, told reporters over the weekend that he was open to the restoration of the deal but rejected the possibility of follow-on negotiations to prolong it, or the inclusion of Iran’s missile programme or support for militias.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday that several technical issues needed to be resolved, but sounded upbeat about the restoration of the deal.

“They aren’t easy – that’s been clear in recent weeks,” he said during a joint press conference with US secretary of state Antony Blinken. “Nevertheless we are moving forward step by step in every round of negotiations, and we assume that in the context of the presidential election, there’s a good chance to conclude them in the foreseeable future.”

In a move that has rankled Tehran, US officials seized 33 websites operated by Iranian and affiliated news outlets, effectively preventing them from being accessed via the internet. They included Iran’s English-language Press TV, Arabic-language al-Alam, websites run by Iraqi Shia militias, and al-Masirah, a news outlet run by Yemen’s pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. The US Justice Department said the closures were pursuant to a court order. It described the websites as “disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations” that were “disguised as news organisations or media outlets”.

One Iranian official described the confiscation of the domain names as out of line with the spirit of the JCPOA.

“This wrong policy of America seems to be unconstructive at a time when the JCPOA is being negotiated,” Mahmoud Vaezi, of the Iranian president’s office, was quoted as saying.

The nuclear deal was negotiated by US president Barack Obama and scuttled by Donald Trump, prompting the Iranians to begin upping the output and purity of fissile material that could be used for an atomic weapon.

President Joe Biden vowed in his 2020 campaign to return to the deal as a way to rein in Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as a step towards addressing its other activities.

“We know that as Iran has distanced itself from the nuclear deal, as it has galloped forward with its own nuclear program, our other concerns have not gotten any better,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “In many cases, they have actually gotten worse.”

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