VIENNA (Reuters) - Explosives were used to cut the electricity power lines to Iran’s Fordow underground enrichment plant last month in an apparent attempt to sabotage Tehran’s atomic advances, its nuclear energy chief said on Monday.
It was believed to be the first time Iran has mentioned the incident, which atomic energy organisation chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani said took place on August 17.
He also told the annual member state gathering of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that “the same act” had been carried out on power lines to Iran’s main enrichment plant near the central town of Natanz, without giving a date.
Abbasi-Davani made clear his view that sabotage would not be successful in slowing Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at developing an atomic bomb capability but which Tehran says is purely peaceful.
He spoke a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran would reach the brink of being able to build a nuclear bomb in six or seven months.
Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed state, sees Iran’s atomic work as a threat to its existence and has ramped up threats to attack its arch enemy’s nuclear sites.
Iran has often accused Israel and Tehran’s Western enemies of being behind the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and of trying to damage its nuclear programme in other ways, such as cyber attacks.
Abbasi-Davani said explosives had been used to cut power lines from the city of Qom to the Fordow underground uranium enrichment plant on August 17. The next morning, he said, IAEA inspectors had asked for an unannounced visit to Fordow.
“Does this visit have any connection to that detonation? Who, other than the IAEA inspector, can have access to the complex in such a short time to record and report failures?” Abbasi-Davani told the gathering in Vienna.
“It should be recalled that power cut-off is one of the ways to break down centrifuge machines,” he said, referring to the machines used to enrich uranium, which can have both civilian and military purposes.
He did not say whether the power had since been restored or give any other details.
Iran uses the Fordow facility to enrich uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, the part of its work that most worries the West as it takes it significantly closer to the 90 percent level needed for bombs. It built the site some 80 metres below rock and soil to better protect it against enemy strikes.
Abbasi-Davani, in unusually strong language in an international forum, also accused the IAEA of a cynical approach and mismanagement and suggested that “terrorists and saboteurs” might have infiltrated it.
The IAEA has voiced growing concern about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme and is seeking to resume a long-stalled investigation into suspected atom bomb research in the Islamic Republic.
An IAEA report last month said Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges at Fordow, further expanding its capacity to make sensitive nuclear material despite harsh Western sanctions and the threat of an Israeli attack.
Abbasi-Davani told the IAEA gathering that included senior U.S. and other Western officials: “Plotters of attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities have realised, through the IAEA published reports, that they have not gained any success in this regard.”
Iranian experts have devised “certain ways through which nuclear facilities remain intact under missile attacks and air raids,” he said.
The United States and its allies have launched a major naval exercise in the Gulf they say shows a global will to keep oil shipping lanes open as Israel and Iran trade threats of war.
Editing by Janet Lawrence