Four maps reveal extent of Iran's mysterious fires and explosions
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
More than a dozen explosions and fires affected Iran between the last week of June and mid-July 2020. These incidents ranged from the serious, affecting Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz, to fires that looked more like accidents that had little impact. The overall impact of these incidents, which have been portrayed as potential sabotage wrapped in secrecy, is not known. To get a sense of the extent of these incidents it is worth looking at where they took place. The best way to do this is through mapping them. At MECRA we have created several maps that depict where the incidents took place. To compile this list we relied on different news reports and social media open source reporting. We attempted as much as possible to locate precisely the facilities, where that was not possible we placed the incident in the nearest large city.
Many of these incidents were reported in Iranian state-linked media. For instance the July 13 fire at a gas condensate plan in Kavian Fariman industrial zone in Razavi Khorasan province, was reported in Iran. Iran has probed many of these incidents and hinted that if sabotage was discovered there could be a response. The incident, allegedly at the Khojir surface-to-surface missile facility, which began this whole series of events, was recorded on video from Tehran because the explosion was so large. The fire there was initially reported at Parchin, but the location was found by satellite. Unsurprisingly, due to the US-Iran tensions and Israel-Iran tensions, there have been a number of articles suggesting cyber attacks could be linked to some of these events. Some of these areas, such as Parchin, have allegedly been damaged in the past by mysterious explosions.
Iran is cognizant of the appearance of sabotage or infrastructure failure. It has held press conferences and also tried to stress that fires are common in the US.
Map 1: What happened
We plotted all the incidents on a map of Iran with explanations of each incident. The most recent was a fire in Tabriz on July 19. This map illustrates the extent of the incidents that have been referenced in major media and online. These are the incidents that captured people’s attention as linked to suspicious or mysterious fires and explosions. There is very little to compare this map to in terms of similar random fires that may have occurred last year at the same time. Iran’s infrastructure is under pressure due to sanctions and other reasons. That some power stations or factories may have caught fire by accident, rather than under suspicious circumstance is entirely plausible. The Khojir incident, which began this list of incidents, and the Natanz explosion appear to be more serious incidents that are out of the ordinary.
Map 2: Where the incidents happened
The incidents have taken place throughout Iran but are concentrated around Tehran and several major cities. They have generally not taken place in very rural areas or in marginal areas populated by minorities. Ahvaz is one exception to this. These are important cities and areas, such as Bushehr, Natanz, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz. Bushehr and Natanz are both near nuclear facilities.
To map this we used open source reporting. We disregarded one incident that appeared to be a grass fire and was not linked to infrastructure.
Map 3: Chronology
The first explosion took place near Khojin at the SSM facility on June 26. The incidents then spread to a medical center in Tehran and Natanz. Natanz and Khojin were the most serious incidents linked to key aspects of Iran nuclear and defense program. The dates of the explosions are June 26, June 30, July 2, July 3, July 4, July 9, July 12, July 13, July 15 and July 19. There are several days that had numerous incidents. For instance July 13 witnessed an incident in Shian forest, Kavian Fariman, and Najafabad. July 4 and July 19 also appeared to have several incidents.
To map the incidents chronologically we divided them into thirds, including incidents between June 26 and July 3 and July 4 to 12 and then July 13 to 19.
Map 4: Seriousness of the incidents
We attempted to map the seriousness of the sites that were impacted. The SSM facility and Natanz nuclear incidents appear to be the worst in terms of potentially damaging key aspects of Iran’s nuclear and defense programs. In addition the June 30 medical center fire, the July 4 Zargan power plant fire, the July 4 Karoon petrochemical plan fire in Bandar Imam Khomeini, the July 12 petrochemical fire, the Fariman industrial complex on July 13, the July 14 Bushehr ships fire, and the July 19 Isfahan power facility appear to be most serious. The other several incidents appear to be less important.