Around midnight on Oct. 6, local sources in Tehran reported a massive explosion at the Parchin military complex in Iran. The explosion shattered windows in a 15-kilometer radius and created a huge bright flash in the night sky.
Any explosion at Parchin is a big deal. For the central reason that it’s a major site for Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The state-run Fars News Agency confirmed the explosion in a short announcement. The agency stated the “fire” was the result of an incident at an explosive production facility and two employees had been killed.
Military police and security forces blocked access routes leading to the complex, and sirens from firefighting and medical emergency vehicles could be heard throughout the night.
To be sure, we don’t know if the explosion was an accident or a deliberate attack. Any going-ons at Parchin are also highly secretive. But it’s an odd time for an explosion. The blast occurred in the middle of the night at the end of the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice—an important holiday in Iran — when few employees would likely be there.
Parchin is also a key target for anyone trying to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. It’s one of the most important gridlocks in the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 working group. Late last month, Israel—which is not part of the P5+1—alleged Iran carried out nuclear implosion tests at Parchin.
Parchin is one of the perennial mysteries of Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency inspected the facility in 2003, searching for evidence of explosive chambers and research facilities used to develop triggers for nuclear bombs. The IAEA didn’t find proof after a limited search and requested further access—which Tehran denied.
In 2012, satellite imagery indicated a large clean-up effort, including what appeared to be the washing of the site and the demolition of several buildings. The IAEA still requests detailed inspections of Parchin.
The Parchin military complex was first established in 1910 to produce explosive and gunpowder for the Persian army. Iran renovated and expanded the site in 1997 to produce rocket fuel, advanced explosives, tanks and missiles.
Today, Parchin hosts several industrial complexes and enough housing for at least 500 military and civilian personnel.
Explosions and sabotage efforts are not unprecedented at Iranian nuclear facilities. Iranian national police commander Gen. Ahmadi Moghaddam said in 2012 that Tehran regularly anticipates sabotage and explosions.
Less than two month ago, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps claimed to have arrested 13 “nuclear terrorists” who intended to sabotage nuclear facilities. Parchin was subject of another explosion in mid-2007, which killed five employees. We do know that the U.S. and Israel managed to sabotage Iranian centrifuges at Natanz using the Stuxnet virus.
Of course, the U.S. and Israel never owned up to unleashing Stuxnet. There may have been other incidents, or maybe not. Iranian officials will also likely deny any sabotage attempts if they occur—at least initially—as this would put pressure on Tehran to retaliate.
In 2013, Iranian officials announced the capture of several “nuclear terrorists” who blew up several power lines in 2012 near the uranium enrichment facilities at Fordow. If the officials were telling the truth, they took a long time until mentioning it.