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Iran’s really, really bad week

Regardless of the actual cause of the several unfortunate events in Iran in recent days, the perception popularly is that the regime is under attack.

An explosion at the Parchin complex near Tehran on June 26, 2020. Credit: Tasnim News Agency.
An explosion at the Parchin complex near Tehran on June 26, 2020. Credit: Tasnim News Agency.
David Wurmser. Courtesy.
David Wurmser
David Wurmser, Ph.D., an American foreign-policy specialist, is a Fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy. He served as Middle East adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

On July 4 a massive explosion and fire in the Ahvaz area of Iran’s southwest erupted in a local power plant, followed by a chemical leak from another facility in the same general area.

Early videos, detected by Stephen Bryen, show from some distance a large, broad-based and deeply thick black cloud rising over what is said to be the Zergan power plant.

In a second, close-up video, the fire appears to be focused in a small area, with thin, light-brown smoke.

Like the previous events in Iran, the videos appear more to raise than to quell questions. The two fires seem to be of different size, the smoke is of different color, and the latter is again a tightly cropped segment. The latter clearly shows some sort of transformer burning and fire crews dousing it, but in the periphery of the shot, destruction and burn marks can be seen continuing and possibly stretching back to somewhere behind the camera.

The plant pictured in this Ahvaz event is reported to be the Zergan Gas Turbine Power Plant, and publicly at least, there is no information available that this site has any nuclear or missile affiliations. The Darkhovin nuclear facility, which is sensitive and of great concern as a possible nuclear weapons site, is in the vicinity of Ahvaz, but not adjacent to this power plant. There is no evidence at this point that it has suffered an unfortunate event.

On the night of the first of this series of “accidents,” less noticed than the major event at the Khojir missile site 70 kilometers southwest of Tehran, was an event that happened in distant Shiraz but has never been explained. That night, at about the same time Khojir was attacked, the Shiraz power plant suffered a massive explosion and fire, which plunged Shiraz into a complete power outage.

Later in the day, the Iranian government admitted that the Karun petrochemical plant in the city of Mahshahr, just south of Ahvaz, had suffered a major chlorine leak, which resulted in 70 workers there being hospitalized, at least one of whom is in critical condition. Images of the greenish-yellow gases being emitted are here.

There is no direct link between the explosions and fires in the Zergan Gas Turbine Power Plant and the Karun petrochemical plant since they are some distance from each other, but it can also not be ruled out that they may be related events, including the possibility that the power outages may have triggered the chlorine gas release.

Chlorine gas does release a yellowish-green cloud, and thus the Iranian images are consistent with such an accident. But there are other gases that also can release a cloud with such a color, some of which would be consistent with the conversion of uranium hexafluoride or uranium tetrafluoride (UF6 or UF4) into or out of U3O8, which is the preferred storage state of uranium. There is no way to know whether the Iranians are telling the truth that this was chlorine, but in this particular aspect, their reporting would at least be consistent with the images which emerged. In short, there is no evidence that raises doubts about their story.

These incidents at Ahvaz came exactly two days after the Natanz incident, which was exactly two days after the incident in Tehran’s Tarjish Square Sina Athar clinic, which in turn was exactly two days after the events in Khojir and Shiraz.

Possible explanations

Again, as with all previous events, the corruption of the Iranian regime has generated such deep incompetence that horrible accidents are becoming commonplace in Iran. But the steady stream of two-day-apart events raises serious doubts that mere coincidence is to blame.

Moreover, the parallels of the Shiraz and Ahvaz power plant destructions are noteworthy. Unlike Khojir and Natanz, neither are known sites of any military significance. However, it would be reasonable to assume that inducing a vast power outage could be tactically essential if opposition groups or special forces required access to sensitive facilities in a given area. In other words, these power plants may not have been the primary targets, in attacks about which we as yet know nothing.

There is also the possibility that this is a piggy-back attack. Iranian opposition groups have always been strong and active in the Ahvaz province. Seeing what is transpiring across the country in other sites, they could have chosen this moment to conduct a copy-cat attack.

One thing is clear, in a country where the population deeply suspects its official news services, conspiracy theories will abound. Regardless of what has actually happened in these several events, the perception popularly is that the regime is under attack. Few will accept these as all coincidental accidents.

Moreover, the climate of corruption leading to incompetence is a huge problem bedeviling the Iranian regime. When the incompetence leads to perceived impotence, the regime faces a potentially fatal upheaval. Even if the last event was a piggy-back attack, indeed, even if it were a genuine accident, the regime is endangered by a reputation for incompetent impotence.

Dr. David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship. A former U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer, he has extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.

This article was first published by the Center for Security Policy.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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