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Iranian Nuclear Site Sabotaged Amid Attempts To Revive Nuclear Deal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Somebody sabotaged an Iranian nuclear site over the weekend. NPR News has no independent confirmation of who may be responsible for damage that Iran announced at its important Natanz nuclear facility. But Israeli media quickly reported that Israel was responsible. This attack happened just as the United States is discussing rejoining a nuclear deal with Iran. NPR's Daniel Estrin is following this story from Jerusalem.

Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note, it's important what Israeli media say because we presume they are well-connected with sources inside the Israeli government. So what do you hear and see in Israeli media?

ESTRIN: Right. Well, Israeli media outlets very quickly reported Israel was responsible, citing anonymous intelligence officials. There have been other attacks similar to this one in the past. There was a disruption last year at Natanz. There have been assassinations of Iranian scientists. Israel blamed for those, but never took the credit for those. This time is different. And there's some speculation here that, you know, could Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be leaking this to create a sense of urgency around Iran to help him politically form a new government? And could this be a dangerous escalation of tensions with Iran? The other question is, did the U.S. know ahead of time about this attack? It happened as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Israel. The White House says the U.S. had no involvement.

INSKEEP: OK. So it is not automatic that if Israel attacks an Iranian site, that it's some kind of effort to sabotage talks between the United States and Iran, because the whole idea of the talks is for Iran not to have too much of a nuclear program. But let's just play out that plausibility, that possibility. Could Israel be out to, in some way, damage the U.S. effort to get back into the nuclear deal?

ESTRIN: I think you can interpret it in a few different ways. An Israeli defense official told me - based on the reports that the attacks did set back operations at this enrichment facility many months, that official says, well, now Iran's nuclear progress appears to be delayed, so the world doesn't need to rush back to the old nuclear deal. Let's work out a different strategy. And Israel is worried about Iran getting sanctions relief, worried about going back to the old nuclear deal, worried about Iran growing stronger because Israel - because Iran is Israel's biggest strategic threat. Iran has threatened Israel. It has supported Israel's enemies.

Now, the other way to look at this is, you know, the attack on the nuclear facility doesn't delay a deal; it could actually speed up a deal because Iran does seem to want to keep diplomacy on track. Iran's foreign minister is saying this attack will only strengthen Iran's position in the negotiations. And the White House also wants to get back to the original nuclear deal. As a starting point, it wants to lower tensions with Iran. It just - it wants to turn to other issues like China and Russia.

And - you know, I spoke to a former ambassador to U.S. - to Israel, Dan Shapiro. And he tells me that in the original nuclear talks under Obama, that fear of Israeli military action was actually an argument the U.S. used to push a diplomatic solution, basically saying, hey, you never know what the Israelis can do, so let's get to a deal.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that Benjamin Netanyahu, as prime minister of Israel, was not thought to get along very well with President Obama, was thought to get along very well with President Trump. What about President Biden?

ESTRIN: That remains - it may be too soon to tell. I mean, Israel and the U.S. are holding talks on Iran. It's important to Israel to have that output - or to have that input in the negotiations. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has proven that he can counter a U.S. president openly on Iran. He did that with Obama when he went to Congress and opposed the nuclear deal. But Netanyahu knows, if he wants to keep having that input with the U.S. on these negotiations, he cannot thwart U.S. efforts.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks for the analysis. Really appreciate it.

ESTRIN: Sure thing.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.