By Farnaz Fassihi on July 15, 2020
A large fire broke out at a shipyard in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr on Wednesday, burning seven ships and sending plumes of black smoke billowing above the city skyline, according to videos and Iranian media reports.
The fire followed dozens of recent fires and explosions across Iran’s forests, factories and military and nuclear facilities in the past three months that have rattled ordinary Iranians. Iranian officials have said that some of the episodes may have been acts of sabotage but blamed weather, accidents and equipment malfunctions for the others.
On Tuesday an aluminum factory in the industrial city of Lamard, in Fars Province, caught fire. On Sunday, a fire broke out at petrochemical plant in Khuzestan Province.
An explosion at the country’s top nuclear facility in Natanz two weeks ago damaged the structure where centrifuges were assembled and has been attributed to Israeli sabotage.
There have also been explosions at two power plants, a chlorine gas leak at a chemical plant and an explosion at a missile production factory at a military complex in Tehran.
Some Iranian officials have said privately that they suspect that at least some of the fires and explosions were part of an American and Israeli military campaign against Iran, but no official has publicly said whether any of the incidents are linked or blamed any country or group for them.
Some analysts speculate that various enemies of the Iranian government — not just the United States and Israel but possibly domestic groups as well — may be seizing the opportunity to stoke chaos.
“There is a belief that those who want regime change in Iran are throwing everything they have at Iran to see which one would stick,” said Foad Izadi, a conservative political analyst in Tehran. The waves of explosions and fires, he said, are “creating this sense of instability and chaos and insecurity.”
No casualties were reported from the shipyard fire on Wednesday. Local officials said the flames were so extensive that they had to call in additional fire engines from the navy, the Revolutionary Guards Corp and a nearby nuclear plant.
The fire was tamed after about five hours, local media reported.
Jahangir Dehghan, Bushehr’s top crisis official, said the cause of the fire was unclear but that high winds and the fiberglass used in boat construction had contributed to its rapid spread, according to the Tasnim news agency. Fiberglass, however, is not generally flammable.
While government officials have not linked the fires and explosions, they have acknowledged that the number and frequency are unusual.
Aside from military and industrial fires, more than 1,100 forest fires in the past three months have burned more than 150 square miles of woodlands. Parliament called in the ministers of environment and intelligence to question them about the forest fires, at least a fifth of which were believed to been caused by arson.
Many Iranians and some officials suspect that the fires and explosions are part of a coordinated covert operation by the United States and Israel to pressure the Islamic Republic government to negotiate a new nuclear deal, or to provoke a military confrontation.
The July 2 explosion at Natanz was part of a yearlong covert operation by Israel and the United States, American and Middle Eastern intelligence officials have said. Intelligence officials said the blast may have set the Iranian nuclear program back as much as two years.
Israel and the United States have sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program in the past. But officials from both countries said they had nothing to do with the explosion at a missile production facility near Tehran in late June.
But there have been so many things burning or blowing up that Iranians are suspicious of everything.
“Nobody believes these incidents are an accident even if they really are accidents,” said Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst in Tehran. He said he thought the aim of these attacks was to project the sense that Iran’s government was losing control and to encourage opposition supporters inside Iran to rise up.
For many Iranians, anticipating what will blow up next has become a kind of parlor game.
Majid, a 63-year-old business owner in Tehran’s bazaar who asked that his last name not be used, said morning greetings with fellow shopkeepers are followed by speculation about what will explode or burn that day.
Hossein, a writer in Tehran who also asked his last name not be used, said that when he took a taxi last week, the driver quizzed the passengers about which sites had exploded and which they predicted would be next.
In the absence of a clear culprit or claim of responsibility, the government has been struggling to respond.
Analysts said some of the episodes had clearly demonstrated that there were security gaps and intelligence moles within Iran’s most secure nuclear and military sites as well as industrial complexes.
Not responding to sabotage risks appearing weak and vulnerable, while retaliating could set off a military confrontation that could be costly and painful. Some officials also fear that a war could improve President Trump’s re-election prospects.
Hence the government has said little about the fires and explosions that have damaged a military base in Birjand, the state broadcasting headquarters in Tehran, a port near Bandarlengeh, a steel plant in Ahwaz and a petrochemical plant in Mahshahrtaken, to name a few episodes that took place over just five days last month.
Instead, the government is embracing what one official calls “strategic patience.”
“Iran is neither prepared nor wants a war,” Mr. Abdi said. “The reason it won’t even acknowledge publicly that they are sabotage is to save face and not be cornered into a response.”
But if the attacks escalate, analysts said, a military response would be inevitable.