When a major explosion lit the sky on the outskirts of Tehran last week, the Iranian government quickly dismissed the episode as a gas explosion at the Parchin military base, which was once the focus of international nuclear inspectors.
It turned out to be wrong: satellite photos show that the explosion occurred in a missile production facility near Parchin, an underground tunnel base that was long believed to be an important location for Iran’s growing arsenal.
Aside from Tehran’s misdirection efforts – commercial satellite photos showed the telltale signs of the explosion and the location – it is unclear whether the cause was an accident, sabotage, or anything else.
American and Israeli intelligence officials insist that they have nothing to do with it.
But in Iran, where curating conspiracy theories is a national pastime, the sight of a massive explosion in eastern Tehran quickly merged on social media with news of a blackout in Shiraz, nearly 600 miles south. Shiraz also has large military facilities, and the explosion and breakdown occurred within the same hour on Friday.
There is no evidence that the incidents are related.
Nuclear inspectors visited the Parchin military facility five years ago after years of fighting with the Iranian authorities. The renovation work on the facility had been so extensive that a possible government was suspected try to hide previous work on nuclear detonation technologies.
After last week’s episode, Iranian news organizations were shown a small hole in an otherwise intact gas tank, which was an unlikely explanation for an explosion so large that pictures of the flames that were taken miles from the website appeared on Twitter.
At the end of the weekend, commercial overhead photos showed a burned slope in the Khujir missile production complex in eastern Tehran, where both liquid and solid propellants are produced for the Iranian missile fleets.
“It is likely that some kind of gas or liquid storage tank has been blown up,” said Fabian Hinz, Iranian military expert at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. he said, but it was unclear in the photos. The main building of the missile production center appeared to be undamaged.
The Iranian missile program has long been a target of Israeli intelligence agencies. A major explosion in 2011, in which a key architect of the Iranian missile program was killed, is widely regarded as an act of sabotage.
But this explosion may have been different. Two Israeli intelligence agencies operating outside Israel’s borders, the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence unit, said they were investigating the episode and have not yet reached a final conclusion as to whether it was an accident or sabotage. But several officials insisted that Israel was not involved.
American officials also said they doubted it was a sabotage operation. Typically, Israel and the United States coordinate coordinated operations on covert missions, such as the cyber attack on Iran’s Iranian nuclear centrifugal facility a decade ago.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s office declined to comment on whether Israel was involved in the explosion, a standard answer to such questions. A spokesman for the I.D.F. also declined to comment.
Ronen Solomon of IntelliTimes, an intelligence blog that was one of the first to identify the Khojir missile site as the site of the explosion, found that it “did little damage.” But he noticed that it was “a huge facility” and, as part of the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, was the target of American economic sanctions.
If the explosion was an act of sabotage, according to some analysts, it was carefully designed not to invite retaliation because the damage was so minor. In the past, however, there were small attacks that made Iranians fear that foreign powers had insiders in the country’s sensitive military programs.
The Iranian news media attempted to counter reports of the missile site, saying that it was generated by “hostile media” that the Iranian missile bases wanted to present as vulnerable to attack.