Fire breaks out at Iranian nuclear facility, no casualties reported, officials say

Fire breaks out at Iranian nuclear facility, no casualties reported, officials say

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A fire broke out at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility but there were no casualties and the site is operating as usual, Iranian officials said on Thursday.

The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), Iran’s main uranium enrichment site, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by the United Nations nuclear watchdog.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation initially reported that “an incident” had occurred at the facility in the central province of Isfahan.

It later published a photo showing a shed at ground level had been partly burned.

“There is some damage to the shed which we are investigating. It was inactive and there was no radioactive material in it and there were no personnel,” the organisation’s spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi told state TV.

“There has been no interruption in the work of the enrichment site and no damage to the site.”

The governor of Natanz city, Ramazanali Ferdosi, later said the incident was caused by fire, adding that firefighters had been sent to the site. He gave no further details about the cause of the blaze, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

A team of experts from the Atomic Energy Organisation is investigating the cause of the incident.

Some experts did not rule out the possibility of sabotage given the importance of the Natanz nuclear site.

“Considering that this so-called incident happened just a few days after the explosion near the Parchin military base, the possibility of a sabotage cannot be ruled out,” a former Iranian nuclear official told Reuters.

“Also Natanz enrichment facility has been targeted in the past by a computer virus,” he said, referring to an attack in 2010 by the Stuxnet computer virus that damaged centrifuges at the site and is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel.

Last Friday an explosion occurred east of Tehran near a sensitive military complex which the authorities said was caused by a tank leak in a gas storage facility in a public area.

Western security services believe Tehran carried out tests relevant to nuclear bomb detonations more than a decade ago at the Parchin military and weapons development base. Iran has denied it carried out such tests.

Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions in a deal reached between Tehran and six world powers in 2015.

But Tehran has gradually reduced its commitments to the accord since U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed and intensified sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy.

The deal only allows Iran to enrich uranium at Natanz facility, with just over 5,000 of first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.

Israel has backed Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran aimed at forcing it to agree a new deal that puts stricter limits on its nuclear work, curbs its ballistic missile program and ends its regional proxy wars.

Iran says it will not negotiate as long as sanctions remain in place.

There was no immediate comment from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

 

 

U.S. seeks to seize gasoline in four Iran tankers bound for Venezuela

U.S. prosecutors filed a lawsuit to seize the gasoline aboard four tankers that Iran is trying to ship to Venezuela, the latest attempt by the Trump administration to increase economic pressure on the two U.S. foes.

The government of Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro has flaunted the fuel supply to show it remains unbowed by U.S. pressure. Washington has been pressing for Maduro’s ouster with diplomatic and punitive measures, including sanctions on state oil company PDVSA.

The lawsuit, filed late on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was followed on Thursday by a warrant issued by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg for the seizure of the more than 1.1 million barrels of gasoline in the four vessels.

Legal sources said the gasoline could likely only be seized by U.S. authorities if the tankers enter U.S. territorial waters. But they said the actions could help push other countries to cooperate in seizing the fuel.

Gasoline shortages in Venezuela, like Iran a member of OPEC, have grown acute due to U.S. sanctions, and the country has undergone an economic collapse. Still, Maduro has held on.

In the civil-forfeiture complaint, U.S. federal prosecutors aim to stop delivery of Iranian gasoline aboard the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna, according to the lawsuit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Boasberg issued the warrant for the seizure of the gasoline in the tankers based on probable cause that the fuel is forfeitable, the Justice Department said.

The lawsuit also aims to stop the flow of revenues from oil sales to Iran, which Washington has sanctioned over its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and influence across the Middle East. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Washington has increasingly been using civil forfeiture to stop illicit trade involving Iran and Venezuela, complementing its sanctions policy, according to Evelyn Sheehan and Beau Barnes at Kobre and Kim, a firm specialized in disputes and investigations.

“U.S. policy towards both Venezuela and Iran is focused on denying both regimes access to foreign currency,” said Sheehan, who is also a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor. “Intercepting gasoline cargoes with civil forfeiture is a novel way to achieve that goal.”

Zia Faruqui and two other assistant U.S. attorneys allege in the lawsuit that Iranian businessman Mahmoud Madanipour, affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, helped arrange the shipments by changing documents about the tankers to evade U.S. sanctions.

The lawsuit says that since September 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force has moved oil through a sanctioned shipping network involving dozens of ship managers, vessels and facilitators.

Profits from the shipments support the “full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad,” the lawsuit said.

The vessels carrying Iranian gasoline engaged in ship-to-ship transfers to evade sanctions. The Pandi, for example, engaged in such a transfer in Port Khalid in UAE to load the Iranian gasoline surreptitiously, the lawsuit said.

It was not immediately clear whether or how the Trump administration would move to seize the gasoline. The U.S. government must prove the fuel is forfeitable under law in a civil proceeding for it to seize it permanently.

Last year, the Trump administration failed to stop a tanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil, the Adrian Darya formerly known as Grace 1, through blacklisting it and other measures.

The vessel was originally seized by the British Royal Marine commandos on suspicion being en route to Syria, but was released by Gibraltar. After a warrant was issued for the Adrian Darya, Brian Hook, the State Department’s top Iran official, sent emails to its captain saying the Trump administration was offering him several million dollars to steer the tanker to a country that would impound it on behalf of Washington.

The oil was eventually sold to the Assad government in Syria.

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