JERUSALEM — A senior Israeli official has dismissed reports published over the weekend of an explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility last week.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official, who is familiar with discussion within the Israeli government, told GlobalPost that, "the only source for this story is a website that is beneath trashy. They have zero credibility. No other source has had anything to say.”
An Israeli Air Force intelligence official and a prominent military analyst confirmed for GlobalPost that the story was untrue. And in an unusual move Tuesday, the United Nations nuclear watchdog also backed Israel's denial of the explosion, according to media reports.
The story originated on WorldNetDaily, a conservative website that publishes stories like, "Impeach Obama over plunging US into debt?" and "Is Hugo Chavez already Dead?"
WND's story said there had been a massive blast in the underground nuclear reactor of Fordow, a key facility near the Iranian city of Qum. It also said that 240 workers had been trapped beneath the rubble.
The Israeli official told GlobalPost that routine satellite images would have picked up indications of an explosion of the magnitude described in the WND story.
A report in the Sunday Times (firewall) added to the confusion over the weekend, claiming an Israeli intelligence official confirmed an explosion had taken place. The story could not be verified. Instead, on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, "We have no information to confirm the allegations in the report and we do not believe the report is credible. We don't believe those are credible reports.”
Meir Javedanfar, a professor at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, who runs the blog Iran-Israel Observer, which is considered a leading commentary on all matters Israeli and Iranian, said it will be impossible to verify until the next International Atomic Energy Agency inspection, which is scheduled for Thursday. International Atomic Energy Agency officials normally inspect the site every 10 days.
"If the explosion happened, it is not something you can hide," he said. "But until then you just can't know."
Speaking on Israel Army Radio, Dr. Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies concurred, saying that, "if the coming inspection is delayed or in any way impeded, then maybe there's some truth to this story. There is no doubt Fordow is a very important installation for the Iranians. It is deep underground, and it is where they refine uranium to 20 percent."
Landau pointed out that the closure of the Fordow plant is one of the condition set by Western nations in order to lift crippling sanctions that have been enacted against Iran.
The Israeli government had no comment on the report, though Home Front Security Minister Avi Dichter said on Sunday that, "Any explosion in Iran that doesn’t hurt people but hurts its assets is welcome.”
The possibility of major damage to an Iranian nuclear facility came at the same time Israel's outgoing minister of defense, Ehud Barak, gave a televised interview in which he said the United States had prepared "precise" military surgical strikes that could be deployed if diplomatic efforts to staunch Iran's nuclear ambitions fail.
"The Pentagon has prepared quite sophisticated, fine, extremely fine, scalpels. So it is not an issue of a major war or a failure to block Iran. You could under a certain situation, if worse comes to worst, end up with a surgical operation,” he said.
Though Iranian government-run media issued a denial of any damage to the plant at Fordow, the Iranian government seemed more preoccupied with the fate of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, than with its nuclear installations.
Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted by the Iranian news agency over the weekend that Iran would consider any foreign intervention in Syria an attack on Iran itself.
"Syria has a very basic and key role in the region for promoting firm policies of resistance ... For this reason an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran's allies," he said.
For its part, Israel also seemed focused on Syria. Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting was devoted almost entirely to the concern that a Syrian government collapse could lead to chemical weapons making their way to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups.
In addition, and without any official comment, two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries were for the first time deployed on Israel's northern border. Also, National Security Advisor Gen. Ya'akov Amidror was dispatched to Moscow to discuss the danger of Syrian chemical weapons stores with the Russian government.
Omer Bar-Lev, a newly elected Labor party member of parliament, dared to put words to what many in Jerusalem were asking themselves. While acknowledging the danger of a Syrian implosion, he inquired in a radio interview whether "the sudden urgency we are hearing about may in fact be aimed at convincing people they are facing imminent danger and need to come together, in order to affect the coalition-building process."
The very fact that the question was uttered is a measure of how eroded is the credibility of Netanyahu on matters of national security. In fact, faced with silence from the government, Israeli observers speculated about whether the anti-missile batteries were to protect Israel from Syrian fallout or from the thousands of missiles in Hezbollah hands. Two unexplained explosions have rocked Hezbollah territory in southern Lebanon in the past week.
Iran's return to the headlines comes after several months in which the subject seemed to have receded in importance. Netanyahu seems eager to return to his political routine after the bruising electoral campaign.
"The Middle East doesn't stop for elections, everything continues. We need to work on peace and security," he said in a Monday meeting with Britain's former prime minister, Tony Blair.
The electoral campaign, which ended less than a week ago, was almost devoid of the question of a nuclear Iran. However, on election night, Netanyahu, who in Israel's convoluted parliamentary system won overall while losing significant power, returned to the subject, saying that he was the leader who could "safeguard Israel from the threat of Iran."
Shimon Shiffer, the senior diplomatic analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Acharaonoth, said Iran "wasn't an issue in the elections" because "Israelis didn't see the matter as an acute, immediate matter that they have to relate to."
According to Shiffer, Netanyahu briefly returned to the subject of Iran on election night "because emotionally, he wanted to return to a routine or sorts" but the new political configuration in Israel is unlikely to follow his path.
Yesh Atid, the brand new centrist party that surprised Netanyahu with a strong second place finish in last week's elections with a message stubbornly focused on local and social matters, had no comment on the developing strategic challenges.
"We are not giving any interviews," the party spokeswoman, Nilly Richman said. "It will take us a few days."