On 12 April 2021, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the United States was not involved in the attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility and had no connection with the explosion. She added that the Biden administration is following the incident and that it has no information regarding the cause of the explosion. Of course, this response from the U.S. government largely adheres to expectation, especially given that Israel itself appears careful not to formally claim responsibility for such attacks. Nevertheless, Washington and Tel Aviv sent Tehran a clear message, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Israel on the same day that the Natanz facility was attacked. The attack targeted the facility’s electrical distribution grid and may have also affected its centrifuges, although Iran subsequently announced that it was ready to increase enrichment to 60%.
That the U.S. Secretary of Defense visited Tel Aviv on the day of the Natanz incident suggests that Washington and Tel Aviv sought to show that they are engaged in high-level coordination on matters of intelligence. Apparently, they also aimed to send a message that Iran’s intransigence in negotiations and its insistence on ramping up nuclear activity may expose it to more security operations. These operations always resonate loudly in both Iranian and foreign arenas.
The U.S. agenda:
The United States may attempt to exploit the recent attack on Iran’s Natanz facility to improve its position in the talks between Iran and the "4+1 Group" (China, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain) that are currently underway in Vienna. The talks were originally scheduled for 14 April 2021 but were postponed by one day. The U.S. agenda can be explained as follows:
1- Containment of the nuclear challenge from Iran: The Biden administration hopes that the attack on Natanz will persuade Iran to lower the level of the nuclear challenge it poses to European countries and the U.S. The first reason is that Tehran will no longer be able to move forward on its nuclear project in the same fashion. Plus, no matter who is responsible for the attacks, these actors will be able to impede Iran’s nuclear project and set it back several steps.
From Washington’s perspective, the attack could foster opportunities to reach new understandings and end the crisis that currently threatens the nuclear agreement. Thus, Iran would restore its commitments, with the knowledge that failing to do so would subject it more security operations and breaches. Such operations have highlighted dangerous shortcomings in Iran’s security apparatus. Operations that it has failed to stop include the theft of Iranian nuclear files in 2018; the targeting of nuclear and missile plants in June and July 2020; the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who headed the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research within the Iranian Ministry of Defense; and a disruption of the electrical grid powering the Natanz facility. Natanz is the most prominent and influential facility in Iran’s nuclear program.
2- Facilitating talks between Washington and Tehran: These operations may push Iran to be more flexible about its demands—or perhaps more accurately, its conditions—in order to reach a new deal in the nuclear agreement. From the perspective of the U.S., Iran may think that reaching such a deal could help prevent or at least cut down on operations and attacks. Iran may also view a deal as a way to advance other goals not directly related to the nuclear agreement, such as Iran’s influence in conflict regions like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. As a result, Iran may acquiesce to the idea of some U.S. sanctions remaining in place, even though prior to the attack it had insisted that all be lifted. The Biden administration had rejected this condition, stating that even if a new deal were reached, some sanctions would remain in effect.
3- Improving opportunities for a deal with Iran: If Iran was thinking about ending the current talks due to participating nations refusing its conditions, it will think twice about withdrawing in light of the recent attack on the Natanz facility. Tehran knows that if the talks collapse without reaching an agreement to facilitate work on the nuclear deal, Iran would as a direct result be subjected to security operations and attacks of increased intensity; the attacks could also widen in scope to achieve more substantive goals. The actor responsible for the attacks has not ruled out such an escalation and clearly has the ability to continue breaching the security of the Iranian regime’s most vital organizations.
4- The imposition of stronger U.S. constraints on Iran: The U.S. administration may seek to exploit the attack on the Natanz facility to impose stronger restrictions on Iran. Iran would then find it harder to make further attempts to reduce its commitment to the nuclear agreement, as it is currently doing. In other words, Washington will try to send Tehran a clear message that Iran’s nuclear activities must be subjected to restrictions, and that Iran cannot only consider its own interests. Iran must instead take into account the interests of the other powers, including those not involved in the talks, namely, Israel. Israel will act unilaterally to mitigate the perceived security threat posed by the nuclear agreement.
5- Expansion of the issues under negotiation with Iran: The attack on the Natanz facility has implications which may serve the agenda of the Biden administration in the future. This is especially true in regard to topics which the U.S. preferred to omit from the current talks, but which it will no doubt bring up at a later stage, such as the ballistic missile program and Iran’s regional influence. Although security operations against Iran, including the latest attack against the Natanz facility, have generally focused on its nuclear program, some operations have had other targets. For instance, in 26 June 2020, an attack was carried out on the Khajir facility, which is connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Additionally, in Iraq and Syria, Israel has repeatedly struck the positions of Iran and its armed militias affiliated with it. The U.S. carried out a military strike against said militias in 26 February 2021. The goal is to convince Iran that not only its nuclear program is being targeted, but other sources of its strength. This way, Washington aims to make Iran show more flexibility, in such a way as to reach new understandings around the aforementioned issues.
A difficult strategy:
Iran’s initial reactions suggest that it may not respond positively to these messages. Iran announced that it will raise the level of enrichment to 60%, sending a clear message that attacks on its nuclear facilities will achieve the opposite of what those responsible had intended. However, questions remain as to whether Iran can actually increase enrichment to this degree, how much it will actually produce, and which centrifuges it will use to achieve this. All of these points remain unclear, which suggests that the ball is in Iran’s court. Either Iran will continue increasing its level of enrichment—possibly leading to the collapse of the current talks—or it will try to exploit this issue to improve its position in these talks, much like the United States is taking advantage of the recent attack.