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Iranian Nuclear Site Hit With Blackout In Suspected Attack

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Changing gears now to ask what exactly happened over the weekend at Iran's main nuclear enrichment facility. We know there was an attack, a blackout at the underground site at Natanz. We know Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif is blaming Israel. And we know if this was Israel, it would not be that country's first attack on Iran's nuclear program. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace joins me now.

Hey there.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Great to be with you.

KELLY: Great to have you with us. What else do we actually know about what happened?

SADJADPOUR: Well, what we know so far is that it looks like it was an explosion. It wasn't a cyberattack. There have been reports that this has set Iran's program back many months, but I think we'll probably know more in the coming days and weeks and months.

KELLY: Israel is officially denying responsibility for this. How much weight do you give that denial, and what are the other possibilities?

SADJADPOUR: I almost wouldn't put any weight in denial. There is essentially two countries that would be capable of this. One is the United States, and one is Israel, and the United States has denied any involvement. And as you alluded to earlier, Mary Louise, Israel has a long history of these kinds of attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities and, frankly, against Iran's nuclear scientists. They pulled off an assassination against Iran's top nuclear scientist last November. So this is something that Israel has been doing against Iran's nuclear program for more than a decade. They essentially refer to it as mowing the lawn. It's, you know, acts of sabotage that they need to do periodically to set back Iran's nuclear ambitions.

KELLY: Mowing the lawn - just the metaphor extended would be just not letting the grass grow too tall, keeping it as low to the ground as they can.

SADJADPOUR: Exactly - to continue to contain and counter Iran's nuclear program. And, you know, we should really look at the broader context in which these two countries are operating. This is probably one of the most acrimonious geopolitical relationships in the entire world. Iran denies - rejects Israel's existence. Some of Iran's leaders have denied the Holocaust.

You know, if you look at this through a geographic lens, Iran is Goliath, and Israel is David. Iran is 75 times larger than Israel. If you look at it through a military lens, Israel is Goliath, and Iran is David. Israel has over 100 nuclear weapons. Iran has none. So both countries see themselves as kind of the victim fighting injustice. And you know that old expression, all is fair in love and war? For the Israelis, they say they're not going to - we're not going to outsource our security to any other country. Iran poses an existential threat to us, and we need to counter them.

KELLY: Is there any suggestion of a U.S. role here?

SADJADPOUR: No. The United States has denied any involvement, although the U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was actually in Israel when this attack took place. And I suspect that Iran's officials will accuse the United States of being complicit. But the bottom line is that the Biden administration is very keen on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran.

KELLY: Right. And, of course, we should just nod very briefly to the timing. All this comes as talks are due to resume this week in Vienna. Will this complicate all of that?

SADJADPOUR: I think it could complicate it. But at the end of the day, Iran needs to revive this nuclear deal for economic reasons, and the United States is committed to reviving the deal for security reasons. So this presents a hiccup. But ultimately, I would argue that there's a high likelihood that this nuclear deal will be revived sometime in 2021.

KELLY: That is Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment.

Always good to speak with you. Thank you.

SADJADPOUR: Likewise - thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECONDITE'S "LEVO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.