While there was no indication of any attack, the explosion shook Iranians for miles around at a time of mounting tensions with Israel over Iran's nuclear programme.
A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards -- Iran's elite military force -- said the blast happened as troops were moving munitions at a base in Bidganeh, near the town of Shahriar.
"My dear colleagues in the Revolutionary Guards were moving munitions in one of the arsenals at that base when, due to an incident, an explosion happened," Ramezan Sharif told state TV news channel IRINN.
"Some of the wounded are reported to be in a critical condition," he added. The semi-official Fars news agency said 25 people had been taken to hospital.
Iran quickly denied that that the facility is connected to its nuclear program, but the sudden blast--and "official" actions after the explosion--raised suspicions. The media was kept away from the scene and the head of Iran's Red Crescent organization said only six paramedics had been allowed into the Amir Al-Momenin military base--a number that seemed insufficient for a mass casualty event.
It was the second major explosion at an Iranian arms facility in a little over a year. Last October, a similar blast killed several troops at a base near Khoramabad. Several installations in that area are connected to Iran's ballistic missile program, and there was some speculation that the explosion might have been linked to an accident involving a Shahab-3 unit. The Shahab-3 is a medium-range missile, capable of striking targets as far away as Israel.
Some believe sabotage (by Israel or Iranian opposition groups) was responsible for last year's blast, and similar rumors are making the rounds about today's blast near Tehran. Modern munitions--even those used by countries like Iran--are modular in design, reliable and safe. Generally speaking, they only blow up when they're supposed to, when all components are in place and at the end of the required fusing process.
It's hard to imagine conventional weapons simply blowing up accidentally. But if the Amir Al-Momenin base was involved in weapons experiments--perhaps related to Iran's nuclear program--then the chances for an accident are significantly higher. A connection to Tehran's WMD program would also raise the interest of Israeli intelligence, and raise prospects for some sort of covert plot against the facility.
As we noted at the time of the Khoramabad explosion, it takes a great deal of planning and skill to carry out an attack on a supposedly "secure" Iranian facility. In other words, if it was sabatoge, then Israel was the most likely culprit, and the Mossad will be among the suspects in today's blast near Tehran.
But covert missions and cyber attacks cannot deter Iran's nuclear ambitions forever. This week's alarming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency was a reminder that Iran has worked steadily towards building a bomb for years, undeterred by western diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions. In response, the Obama Administration announced plans to work with its allies to step up pressure on Tehran--essentially, the same, failed strategy that has been in place for years.
Meanwhile, there's been more talk about a possible Israeli strike against Iran, and that recent test launch of a Jericho III missile--a not-so-subtle reminder that while Tehran is still seeking a nuclear capability, Israel already has the capability to put nuclear weapons on Iranian targets.
ADDENDUM: There were also vague hints that the U.S. may be preparing for a worst-case scenario in the Persian Gulf. This week, the Pentagon announced the potenial sale of advanced bunker-buster munitions to the United Arab Emirates. That's the very sort of weapon that would be useful in attacking certain facilities related to Iran's nuclear program, and we're guessing that the contract comes with a certain clause--allowing the United States access to those weapons in the event of a conflict with Tehran.
Another possibility, albeit remote, is that the location is being used to develope or store explosive for initiating criticality in their nuclear warhead design. As you know, timing is everything, where the triggers and HE must precisely impart compression on the core, particularly given a small warhead design. So it is not out of the box plastic and would also mess up the facility if it detonated due to sabotage.
Admittedly, this is true left-field conjecture considering we have virtually no useful public information. Sat intel may be revealing here, so some outside Iran likely had it determined quickly. The event may simply have resulted from stupid actions taken by over-confident, ill-trained technicians.
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