As previously reported, the UK Times reported in late November that satellite imagery showed “billowing smoke” and destruction at Iran’s uranium conversion facility (UCF) east of Esfahan.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has a report out today, however, with new commercial imagery showing no destruction whatsoever at the UCF. The imagery date is 3 December, five days after the blast.
As readers can see, the UCF is densely packed with buildings of ordinary, non-hardened construction. An explosion originating at that facility – one that could be heard and could break windows in Esfahan – could not possibly avoid damaging at least some of the compound’s structures. The zirconium production plant adjacent to the UCF is undisturbed as well.
ISIS does note that a nearby site of unknown purpose had been razed, however, sometime between 27 August and 5 December 2011. ISIS analysts identified the site in imagery from as early as 1996, and indicate that it was a salt mine at one time. The mine entrance has long been visible, and remains so in the 5 December image. But the above-ground structures are now gone, and there is evidence of bulldozing.
It is conceivable that Iran rushed in to raze a site affected by the 28 November explosion, but it is extremely unlikely that all traces of a major blast could be removed. There is no evidence of debris, discoloration, or cratering at the razed site. It does not appear to have suffered a large explosion, either at the surface or underground. An underground explosion, indeed, would have had to be colossal to break windows in Esfahan. It would not be possible to restore the mine entrance to an undamaged condition within 5-7 days after an explosion of that magnitude. The Iranians might well, for reasons of their own, detonate explosives inside the mine to collapse its underground chambers, but the blast wouldn’t break windows in Esfahan. The sound could travel, but the kinetic overpressure would be virtually all contained by the earth.
In summary, the synoptic image of the complex offers no evidence of a major explosion anywhere at the constructed facilities.
There were original reports that the explosion occurred elsewhere, but because of their confused and conflicting nature, they were largely dismissed. The earliest report, somewhat garbled, suggested that the explosion occurred in the city of Esfahan, near the military academy there. A widely-viewed InfoLive.tv video contains footage of an explosion viewed from a distance – apparently from outside Esfahan – but there is no indication that the video footage was actually obtained on 28 November.
The explosion thus remains a mystery for now. I would observe again that an attempted assassination involving a large explosion in a major city would be both ridiculous overkill and ridiculously inaccurate. The previous apparent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran were performed in a more typical, targeted manner, precisely taking out individuals at vulnerable times. Assuming this explosion was caused by a bomb, it remains unlikely that it was placed by any agency of a foreign government.