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Explained: Isfahan's significance as Iran's nuclear hub and why Israel chose this site for its attack

Situated at the crossroads of the Middle East, Iran's nuclear ambitions have been a focal point of international scrutiny for decades. Central to this discourse is the enigmatic Ishafan facility, a cornerstone of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, shrouded in secrecy and speculation.

Explained Isfahan's significance as Iran's nuclear hub and why Israel chose this site for its attack snt
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First Published Apr 19, 2024, 4:46 PM IST

Ignoring pleas from its allies to remain calm, Israel reportedly conducted a strike against Tehran on Friday morning in retaliation for last weekend's attack, escalating tensions in the region. Explosions rocked the city of Isfahan, home to Iranian nuclear facilities, around 4:30 am local time, with US officials confirming Israel's involvement. Iranian media reported the downing of three drones but denied any missile strikes.

Also read: No plan for immediate retaliation against Israel, says senior Iranian official amid tensions

Isfahan, hosts vital military installations, including nuclear facilities, a major airbase, and factories involved in military production, including drones. The Natanz uranium enrichment plant, Iran's prominent nuclear facility, is situated in the broader province, while uranium conversion activities occur in the southeastern Zerdenjan area of the city.  

We take a better look at the city of Isfahan and why Israel chose this site for its attack:

Situated at the crossroads of the Middle East, Iran's nuclear ambitions have been a focal point of international scrutiny for decades. Central to this discourse is the enigmatic Ishafan facility, a cornerstone of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, shrouded in secrecy and speculation.

Nestled in western Iran along the northern bank of the Zayandeh River, Isfahan boasts a population of nearly 2 million residents. Its opulence and prosperity in the 17th century famously earned it the title "Isfahan nesf-e jahan," meaning "Isfahan is half the world."

The Isfahan facility, initiated in 1999, hosts three small Chinese-supplied research reactors and manages fuel production and other tasks for Iran's civilian nuclear program. The site experienced an explosion in November 2011.

Additionally, Isfahan houses a significant Iranian airbase accommodating the country's aging fleet of American-made F-14 Tomcats, acquired before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Initial speculation suggested that an attack might have targeted a radar facility at the base.

Crucially, the city also hosts Iran's weapons production facilities. In early last year's incident, attributed to Israel, an attack targeted an alleged advanced weapons production facility in Isfahan, resembling the current claimed strike involving three drones.

In February, Iran announced plans to construct a fourth nuclear research reactor in Isfahan. Described as a 10-megawatt "research reactor," Iran emphasized its diverse applications, including fuel and nuclear material testing, as well as the production of industrial radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals.

Former US assistant secretary of state Mark Kimmitt suggested to the BBC that Israel's selection of Isfahan as a target could be due to its strategic importance to Tehran. Kimmitt highlighted Isfahan's central role in the Iranian nuclear program, encompassing training, research, and the perceived advancement of Iran's nuclear capabilities.

“So it’s a likely site that Israel would hit because the greatest fear the Israelis have is not continued missiles today but a nuclear capability tomorrow," he said.

Michael Clarke, a military analyst for Sky News, echoed this sentiment, stating to the British news outlet that Isfahan "would make sense" as a target due to its hosting of one of the less sensitive nuclear sites.

“The fact that Isfahan is one of the cities that does quite a lot of nuclear work is also symbolically quite important, I think, if the Israelis are indicating that they’re not frightened to go after these sites,” he was quoted as telling Sky News.

Retired US Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton pointed out to CNN that Isfahan's air base is conveniently located adjacent to its airport. Additionally, Isfahan is notable for housing Iran's fleet of F-14 fighters, acquired prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Retired US Major General Mark MacCarley expanded on this analysis to CNN, suggesting that Israel's targeting of Isfahan served as a warning, indicating its capability to potentially overpower Iran's defenses.

“I think that there was a very deliberate thought process on the part of the Israeli war cabinet," he said, adding, “Israelis had to retaliate, but at the same time, within that retaliation was a message, and that is, ‘Yes, we can get through. Don’t do it again. If you do it again, then all heck will break out’.”

Also read: Israel has carried out airstrikes on Iran, say US officials; add did not 'endorse' or play part in operation

Isfahan nuclear facilities 'completely secure'

Iranian officials assured that their nuclear facilities remained secure following Israel's reported strike on Friday. “Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reported quoting reliable sources.

Genera Siavosh Mihandoost, a local army commander, also said that the incident caused “no damage” around Isfahan.

In a post on X, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) too confirmed that there is 'no damage' to Iran's nuclear site. It added that the IAEA it continues to monitor the situation very closely and calls for extreme restraint from all sides, stressing that “nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts”.

Speculation has swirled for months regarding the trajectory of Iran's nuclear program, particularly against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Questions loom over whether Iran, amidst these tensions, would choose to transition its nuclear threshold capacity into a fully-fledged nuclear weapons arsenal.

The bombing of the Iranian consulate complex in Damascus, Syria, earlier this month, resulting in the deaths of several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders, has escalated the shadow war between Iran and Israel into a perilous new phase.

Despite Israel never officially claiming responsibility for the attack, it refrained from denying involvement. Iran swiftly pointed fingers at Israel for the strike on the diplomatic facility. In retaliation, Iran launched over 300 drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles at Israel, constituting the first attack by a foreign state against Israel since former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's launch of ballistic missiles during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Remarkably, this marked Iran's second strike against a nuclear weapons state in less than five months.

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