Mystery At Esfahan

Image: Dept. of Defense/Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Tatro

This story by Nicolas Villarruel is the fourth submission in The Art of the Future Project’s series with the Military Writers Guild. He is currently a defense analyst in the Strategy and Plans Division, Headquarters Marine Corps and also serves as a Communications and Civil Affairs Officer in the Marine Corps Reserves. The piece stems from MWG’s workshop prompts at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum’s 2016 DEF[x]DC conference. The other submission were “Ends, Means and Timelines” by Luke O’Brien; “Operation Cyrus,” by Benjamin Locks; and “Leading the Lambs” by John De Rosa.

Hey, I’m forwarding an e-mail along from an oil worker friend out in Esfahan, Iran …

Begin forwarded message:

From: weldspector24@gmail.com
Subject: Sketchy times
Date: May 13, 2026
To: pancho@villa.com

Nick,

Man, what is going on out here??? I know you still work up in DC, and may or may not know what is happening, but it has really hit the fan. The news feeds are all talking about whatever happened the other day out near the Esfahan oil refinery, and people are pretty pissed off. I’m starting to think that coming out here for this six week stint wasn’t worth it.

I don’t think anyone here in our living complex slept much last night. Although it was a long day, I was up late watching Occupy on Netflix (I know, I know — you told me to watch it long ago), when the lights started flickering on and off. All our phones dropped coverage, and the Internet just stopped working. A few of us wandered onto the walkway to chat about it and see if anything new was going on with each other. There have been some pretty frequent brownouts as of late because the electrical infrastructure is still recovering out here, but usually our complex isn’t affected.

I still had a shift in the morning to inspect sector five’s recent welds to the main flow valve, even though I’d spent most of the previous day unscrewing a cluster of a relief valve assembly. Seriously man, it is a goddamn mess out here. Half the stuff we work on is rusted or leaking, and the rest is barely holding together. I don’t think I’ve seen a properly cared for piece of metalwork in days. I know BP is struggling to keep this refinery going, and having an even harder time finding inspectors given the decline in business. They’ve even closed off a large chunk of the facility due to equipment failure. They offered me a boatload of money to come out here to try and salvage some more production value, but I’d be lying if I didn’t worry each day that this whole place is going to go up like a dumpster fire.

After standing around in the dark for a little bit, we heard some loud explosions out toward the refinery near Esfahan. They didn’t sound like the usual excess fuel burn off, or like the refinery failure explosion I heard once before. It sounded like a demolition explosion, with the sound bouncing off the side of the complex. It rattled the little storage shacks on the grounds. The corrugated metal siding sounded like someone beat on it dead center with a sledgehammer. The sound hit me right in the chest, taking the breath out of me for a split second. Felt like a quick thud right against my body, with a big “whoomph” rushing through the courtyard, which our building wraps around in a “U” shape.

Quite a few people were still outside at this point, since the rooms tend to heat up fast when the power goes out. The AC is all that keeps us somewhat comfortable out here. Everyone heard the sound at the same time and felt that same sense of worry and dread. When I feel that, which happens more and more out here, I usually instinctively I reach for my phone to see if anything is registering on the feeds. This time I still had no service whatsoever, which was so odd.

We all tried to see if anything was burning out toward the refinery. Gunfire erupted, with bursts coming with increasing frequency and volume. The sound reminded me of the thuds and echoes I heard living near the firing ranges in Northern Virginia, but this was nothing like the steady beats and rhythm of a training event. The sounds became more sporadic, with huge bursts of action, some moments of silence, and then a resumed flurry of shooting. After about 20 minutes, it all began to die down to very infrequent shots, and then quieted altogether. One of my neighbors on the walkway, Paul, decided to run down and tell the gate guard for our area what we had heard, and ask him what the hell was going on since none of our phones were working or telling us a thing.

The place was quiet for about 15-20 minutes after hearing the last shot. Paul came back from talking to the gate guard who had absolutely no clue what was happening. He said he kept trying to call out on his radio and even the landline, but both of them were dead. A couple of us were about to go walk to the corner store to see if they had service, when a series of new explosions thumped through the air. These ones sounded more muffled than the earlier ones, not as hard hitting against the buildings, like they were further away or coming from under something. Quiet resumed again until we heard sirens wailing and moving fast toward the oil facility. It was at this point that my feeds finally refreshed, and all of us got access to the Internet again. My overseas news feeds were telling me nothing, just continuing on the babble of sports analysts talking about the LA Rams upsetting the Packers to start the season. However my local feed, auto-translated since my Farsi reading is terrible, was filled with the same questions we all had. What were those explosions? Was that gunfire? Is the lack of safety regulation finally catching up to the oil processing plant? A few people were asking if everyone had a lack of service or if Twitter had been down for a while. I went back into my room thinking that the service outage, and power fluctuation, was not a coincidence.

My adrenaline from all the earlier events quickly faded, and I crashed. I figured the feeds would tell me something more in the morning. I’d definitely find out something when I got to the site. I got a quick confirmation from the supervisor saying I was still clear to head out for the inspection, but to just be careful. Couldn’t tell if he was nervous about what happened, but he wasn’t going to let up on our schedule.

That place was such a fucking mess today. It turned out all those damn explosions happened in the failed and sealed-off section of the plant. We were told, and now I am thinking it was pure BS, that the section was sealed off due to massive contamination. A substantial cleaning operation was going on and we weren’t allowed to enter that section. A local contractor with a pretty large crew was coming in to work the area under the auspices of the “Bring Beauty back to Persia” campaign. It all feels sketchy as hell now. I couldn’t see anything up close, but it looks like the place got blown to hell deep within the compound. I was expecting to see some burning crude or lingering flames, but nothing was burning at all. Something big went down in that area, because the security presence was massive. No more gate guards, these dudes were packing some serious heat, with a few helicopters touching down throughout the day. Was there some sort of secret facility here under our noses the whole time? I try not to pry or act too nosy overseas, especially in a place like this, but this is just all too much for a refinery.

Honestly man, I’m just worried now, worried about what comes next. I was already nervous coming out here again, and not on account of the miserable heat and weather. The only decent pay I’ve been able to find have been these gigs after the Alaska sites, offshore rigs, and the Bakken either dried up or folded up due to lack of demand. This was the only opportunity offering decent cash even with the larger scope screening process to get out here. I’m just really concerned about the next week. The TV and feeds are all referring to this as a raid, although no one seems to claim responsibility. A lot of talk against Western aggression. Good ol’ “Death to America and Israel” chants being streamed. I didn’t see anything like this on my last trip, and it has me nervous. Man, even the gate guard is giving some of us weird looks now as we come and go each day.

I’m thinking of just calling it and packing up. Got this bad feeling it’s only going to get worse here, and I don’t want to be stuck. A couple of the other guys already packed up their stuff and are trying to get flights. I’ll keep you posted, and let me know if you find anything out alright? Take it easy back there.

– Mark