Satellite photographs that arrived today suggest the explosion that shook Tehran, the capital of Iran, originated in an area in its eastern mountains. This place, analysts believe, has an underground tunnel system and missile production sites. However, what material exploded in the incident yesterday, sending a massive fireball into the sky near Tehran, remains unclear. What caused the blast is not known either.
The hush-hush manner in which the Iranian government reacted to the explosion, however, lends credence to the analysts’ theory. They believe the Shi’ah state conducted high-explosive tests here two decades ago for nuclear weapon triggers.
The explosion in the Alborz Mountains shook homes, rattled windows and illuminated the horizon early on 26 June.
State TV broadcast a portion from what it described as the site of the blast, with a journalist standing in front of the large, blackened gas cylinders, describing the incident. The camera remained focused and did not pan around to show anything else around the site.
Defence Ministry spokesman Davood Abdi attributed the blast to a leaking gas without identifying it. He said no one was killed in the explosion.
Abdi described the site as a “public area,” raising the question of why military officials and not civilian firefighters would be in charge. The state TV report did not answer that.
Satellite photos of the area, some 20 km east of downtown Tehran, showed hundreds of square metres of charred scrubland. This landscape had not been seen in satellite images of the area before the blast. The building near the char marks resembled the facility seen in the state TV footage.
The gas storage area sits near what analysts describe as the Khojir missile facility of Iran. The explosion might have struck a facility of the Shahid Bakeri Industrial Group. This company makes solid-propellant rockets, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies identified Khojir as the “site of numerous tunnels, some suspected of use for arms assembly.” Large industrial buildings at the site visible from satellite photographs also suggest missile assembly being conducted there.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency says Iran overall has the largest underground facility program in West Asia. Such sites “support most facets of Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities, including the operational force and the missile development and production program,” the DIA said in 2019.
Iranian officials themselves identified the site. They said it was in Parchin, home to a military base. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had previously said it suspected Iran used to conduct tests of explosive triggers here to be used in nuclear weapons.
Iran has always denied its pursuit of nuclear weapons, challenging the IAEA that said the country had done work in “support of a possible military dimension to its nuclear program” that more or less halted in late 2003.
Concerns of the West, especially of the US, that Iran has an active atomic programme have led to sanctions. The worries led to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the leading world powers. Under President Donald Trump, the US unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018, leading to a series of conflicts between Iran and the US. Tehran abandoned the deal’s production limits then.
A series of explosions rocked the missile and space facilities of Iran in recent years. The most notable incident occurred in 2011 when a blast at a missile base near Tehran killed Revolutionary Guard commander Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam and 16 others. Moghaddam was the head of the missile programme of the paramilitary force of Iran. Initially, authorities described the blast as an accident, though a former prisoner later said the Guard interrogated him on suspicion Israel caused the explosion.