JERUSALEM — Israel’s Defense Ministry announced the successful launch of a new spy satellite early on Monday that would help the country monitor Iran’s nuclear activity as its foreign minister hinted that Israel may have been behind a fire that damaged an Iranian nuclear site last week.
The “Ofek 16” satellite gives Israel what officials described as an additional tool in keeping tabs on many threats from across the region, joining a fleet of Israeli spy satellites that have been launched over the past two decades. While officials did not identify specific threats, arch-enemy Iran, which Israel accuses of trying to develop nuclear weapons, is first among them.
The launch came a day after Iran finally acknowledged that a mysterious fire last week damaged a new centrifuge assembly center in Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear site, with suspicion immediately falling on Israel.
Iranian officials had initially sought to downplay Thursday’s fire, calling it an “incident” that affected an “industrial shed.” But on Sunday they confirmed that centrifuges had been damaged and their development and production delayed. It comes amid a spate of other mysterious explosions at Iranian industrial complexes in recent months that have also been attributed to Israel.
Israel has previously proven its ability to penetrate sensitive Iranian facilities, including with the 2018 raid in Tehran when Israeli officials said Mossad agents broke into a warehouse and stole thousands of documents connected to Iran’s nuclear program. Israel and the U.S. are also believed to have been behind the Stuxnet computer virus that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program a decade ago.
Israel has not officially commented on the fire in Natanz, in line with its standard policy of neither confirming nor denying secretive overseas operations.
But in a speech, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi noted that it was Israel’s long-term strategy to prevent Iran from having the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
Without mentioning Natanz, Ashkenazi, who was Israel’s military chief during the Stuxnet period, said at a conference that Israel takes “actions that are better left unsaid.”
The leader of his Blue and White party, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, warned in a radio interview Sunday that while it was understandable to suspect Israel, “not every incident that happens in Iran necessarily has something to do with us.”
Gantz, like Ashkenazi a former military chief of staff, called Monday’s satellite launch an “extraordinary achievement.”