Iran explosion occurred near suspected missile site, satellite image shows

An explosion that rocked Iran’s capital came from an area in its eastern mountains that analysts believe is hiding a system of underground tunnels and missile production sites, satellite photos showed on Saturday.

What exploded in the early Friday incident that sent a massive fireball to the sky near Tehran remains unclear, as does the cause of the explosion.

However, the unusual response from the Iranian government after the explosion underscores the sensitive nature of an area near where international inspectors believe the Islamic Republic conducted high-explosive tests two decades ago to fire nuclear weapons.

The explosion shook houses, shook windows, and lit up the horizon early Friday in the Alborz Mountains. State television then aired a segment of what it described as the site of the explosion.

One of his journalists stood in front of what appeared to be large blackened gas cylinders, although the camera remained well focused and showed nothing else on-site. Defense Ministry spokesman Davood Abdi attributed the blast to a gas leak he did not identify and said that no one was killed in the blast.

Abdi described the site as a “public area”, raising the question of why military officers, not civilian firefighters, would be in charge. The state television report did not answer that.

Satellite photos of the area, about 12.5 miles east of central Tehran, showed hundreds of yards of charred scrub that is not seen in images of the area taken in the weeks leading up to the incident. The building near the charcoal marks resembled the facility seen in the state television video.

The gas storage area is located near what analysts describe as Iran’s Khojir missile installation. The blast appears to have hit a facility for the Shahid Bakeri Industrial Group, which makes solid-powered rockets, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterrey.

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies identified Khojir as the “site of numerous tunnels, some suspected of being used for the assembly of weapons.” Large industrial buildings on the site visible from satellite photos also suggest mounting missiles there.

The United States Defense Intelligence Agency says Iran overall has the largest underground facility program in the Middle East.

These sites “support most facets of Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities, including the operational force and the missile development and production program,” the Defense Intelligence Agency said in 2019.

Iranian officials themselves also identified the site as being in Parchin, home to a military base where the International Atomic Energy Agency previously said it suspects Iran of conducting tests on explosive triggers that could be used in nuclear weapons. Iran has long denied seeking nuclear weapons, although the International Atomic Energy Agency previously said Iran had worked in “support of a possible military dimension to its nuclear program” which was largely halted in late 2003.

Western concerns about Iran’s atomic program led to sanctions and eventually to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The United States under President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal in May 2018, prompting a series of increasingly intense attacks between Iran and the U.S. and Tehran, leaving the production limits of the deal.

Iran’s missile and space programs have experienced a series of explosions in recent years. The most notable occurred in 2011, when an explosion at a missile base near Tehran killed Revolutionary Guard commander Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, who led the paramilitary force’s missile program, and 16 others. Initially, authorities described the explosion as an accident, although a former prisoner later said he was questioned by the Guard on suspicion that Israel caused the explosion.