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Iranians blame Israel for nuke-site damage

by The Associated Press, The Associated Press | July 7, 2021 at 4:02 a.m.
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei speaks at his weekly press briefing in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Rabiei on Tuesday accused Israel of a sabotage attack in June that reportedly targeted a civilian nuclear facility near Tehran, the official IRNA news agency reported. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Iran accused Israel on Tuesday of mounting a sabotage attack on a nuclear facility near Tehran last month, the country's state-run news agency reported as authorities acknowledged for the first time that the mysterious assault had caused structural damage.

Authorities announced in late June that they had prevented saboteurs from attacking a site in Karaj, about 25 miles northwest of Tehran, the Iranian capital. They gave no details about what the targeted building belonging to Iran's Atomic Energy Agency contained, or how it was targeted.

The sudden admission last month was made just days after the election victory of the country's hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, and followed a series of other attacks on Iran's nuclear program, including the killing of a top nuclear scientist.

At the time, officials stressed that the attack had caused no casualties or damage. But Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei revised that account Tuesday, revealing damage to the building's ceiling.

"A hole appeared on ceiling of one of the industrial sheds, so the roof was removed for repairs," Rabiei said, seeking to explain satellite images of the site widely circulated online that appeared to show the roof's abrupt removal after the reported attack. Rabiei acknowledged the images were taken when the roof was removed for restoration.

"Damage to equipment was not remarkable," he said, without elaborating.

The allegedly foiled attack took place during a flurry of diplomatic activity, as diplomats in Vienna struggle to resurrect Tehran's tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which put curbs on its enrichment activities in return for relief from U.S. sanctions. Former President Donald Trump withdrew America from the landmark accord three years ago.

That prompted Iran to gradually abandon the deal's limits on uranium enrichment, setting off a series of tense incidents in the Middle East. To exert pressure on the West for sanctions relief, Iran is now enriching uranium to 60%, its highest-ever levels, although still short of weapons-grade 90%.

Rabiei on Tuesday accused Israeli saboteurs of seeking to derail the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

"The Zionist regime carried out these actions to signal it can stop Iran and to say that there is no need to talk with Iran," he said. "But whenever sabotage has happened, our strength has increased."

There was no immediate comment from Israel, which has not claimed responsibility for any of the alleged attacks on Iran's nuclear program in recent months.

Israel fiercely opposed the 2015 deal, which then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned as a "historic mistake." In recent weeks, however, Israel's new government has struck a softer tone.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told his American counterpart that Israel had "serious reservations" about the accord under discussion in Vienna but that the country would engage constructively and make its objections privately.

Earlier this year, Iran's underground Natanz nuclear facility experienced a mysterious blackout that damaged some of its centrifuges. Last July, unexplained fires struck the advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Natanz, which authorities later described as sabotage. Iran is now rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain.

Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country's military nuclear program decades earlier.

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