Mysterious explosions pose dilemma for Iranian leaders


Iranians carry the flag draped coffin of a member of Revolutionary Guard, who was killed in an explosion at an ammunition depot west of Tehran together with 16 other Guard members. (STR/AP)
November 25, 2011

A massive blast at a missile base operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps nearly two weeks ago was the latest in a series of mysterious incidents involving explosions at natural gas transport facilities, oil refineries and military bases — blasts that have caused dozens of deaths and damage to key infrastructure in the past two years.

Iranian officials said the Nov. 12 blast at the missile base was an “accident,” and they ruled out any sabotage organized by the United States and its regional allies. The explosion on the Shahid Modarres base near the city of Malard was so powerful that it shook the capital, Tehran, about 30 miles to the east.

Despite the official denial of foreign involvement in the latest blast, suspicions have been raised in Iran by what industry experts say is a fivefold increase in explosions at refineries and gas pipelines since 2010.

Explaining the increased number of industrial incidents is proving to be a predicament for Iranian leaders, who do not want to appear vulnerable at a time when Israeli leaders have been debating military intervention against Iran over its controversial nuclear program.

Officials have blamed industrial accidents for most the blasts, saying they were caused by such deficiencies as “bad welding” or “substandard manufacturing.” But media restrictions and the lack of independent investigations have made it hard to verify the claims.

One oil expert said that increasingly strict sanctions prohibiting Western companies from maintaining key installations in Iran could also be to blame.

“Now, many projects are finished by Iranian companies without observing safety standards,” said Reza Zandi, an Iranian journalist who specializes in energy issues.

“There is clearly an increase in incidents in recent years,” said Mohammad Abumohsen, an inspector of oil and gas pipelines.

At least 17 gas pipeline explosions have been reported since last year, compared with three in 2008 and 2009. At the same time, nearly a dozen major explosions have damaged refineries since 2010, but experts say it is complicated to determine the cause of such incidents.

In the United States, Republican presidential contenders have called for President Obama to start covert action against Iran because of its refusal to stop its uranium-enrichment program. U.S. officials suspect the program is aimed at producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran insists that it wants only to make its own fuel for nuclear power plants.

Suspicions that covert action might already be underway were raised when four key gas pipelines exploded simultaneously in different locations in Qom Province in April. Lawmaker Parviz Sorouri told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency that the blasts were the work of “terrorists” and were “organized by the enemies of the Islamic Republic.”

Iran in recent years has improved its ability to hunt spies, using reviews of travel and expense records to round up Iranians suspected of selling information to U.S., British and Israeli intelligence services, the Associated Press reported Monday.

In May, Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi announced the arrest of 30 “CIA spies” who he said had been recruited to map out Iran’s energy infrastructure.

“One of their main objectives was carrying out sabotage activities,” Moslehi said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

Iran’s parliament launched an investigation into the blast at the missile site but did not issue any findings this week as promised. One lawmaker, Mohammad Kazem Hejazi, said revealing such information might give away secrets to the “enemy,” the Iranian Labor News Agency reported Tuesday.

“We are not ruling out sabotage in the Malard missile base,” said one source close to the Revolutionary Guards, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It is not impossible to bribe a single person into doing something bad.”

On Wednesday, an explosion rocked a stronghold in southern Lebanon of Iran’s regional ally, Hezbollah, which is widely believed to be supplied with Iranian missiles capable of hitting major urban centers in Israel. Hezbollah did not comment on the cause of the blast but denied that it occurred at one of the group’s arms depots, Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper reported.

Iran has accused the United States and Israel of organizing the assassinations of three nuclear scientists in Tehran since 2010. The government has also blamed both countries for a computer virus called “Stuxnet,” which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged had disabled centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

In a sign that relations between Iran and the West are further deteriorating, Iran’s parliament voted Wednesday to consider expelling the British ambassador to Tehran. The preliminary vote came after Britain on Tuesday joined the United States and Canada in adopting new financial sanctions against the Islamic Republic. If carried out, an expulsion could prompt other European countries to withdraw their ambassadors, diplomatic sources said.

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