Middle East

Israel Launches Retaliatory Strike Against Iran

Author: Editors Desk, Dov Lieber and Aresu Eqbali Source: WSJ:
April 19, 2024 at 03:00
A portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is pictured in the city of Isfahan. MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
A portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is pictured in the city of Isfahan. MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Tehran lifts restrictions on airspace after canceling flights amid reports of explosions

Israel retaliated overnight against Iran’s massive drone and missile attack on its territory, people familiar with the matter said—with what appeared to be a limited strike aimed at avoiding an escalatory cycle that could push the countries closer toward war. 

The strike targeted the area around Isfahan in central Iran, one of the people said. Iranian media and social media reported explosions near the city, where Iran has nuclear facilities and a drone factory, and the activation of air-defense systems in provinces across the country after suspicious flying objects were detected. 

Much remained unclear about the extent or the impact of the Israeli action. State-run news agency IRNA said Friday morning that its reporters hadn’t seen any large-scale damage or explosions anywhere in the country and that no incidents were reported at Iran’s nuclear facilities. Flight restrictions imposed overnight by Iran were lifted in the morning.

In Israel, the military said late Thursday night that there were no changes to the home-front command instructions that tell the public when to seek shelter.

“It is quite clear that this was not something that was meant to bring about further escalation,” said Raz Zimmt, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “There is no widespread attack. This is very pinpointed.” 

Iranian state television repeatedly played down the episode in its broadcasts, saying three small flying objects had been downed by air-defense systems and suggesting they had been launched from within the country.

The attack appeared to be similar to earlier drone strikes attributed to Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, said Ronen Solomon, an independent intelligence analyst in Israel.

He said the attack signaled to Iran that Israel’s Mossad could covertly hit a nuclear or military site without overtly using the Israeli military or its aircraft. Israel likely wanted to avoid an attack on nuclear sites, or a broader assault, because Israeli officials were concerned Iran would use strikes as an excuse to move ahead with its nuclear program, he said. 


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“It’s more symbolic,” Solomon said, allowing Israel to send a message to Iran and for Tehran in turn to announce that Israel’s attack did little damage. 

The Israeli action was a response to an unprecedented direct attack by Iran that involved more than 300 drones and missiles aimed at Israeli territory. That attack itself was retribution for a strike attributed to Israel that killed top Iranian officers in Damascus.

Most of the drones and missiles fired by Iran were shot down, and the rest did little damage and caused no deaths, giving Israel room to respond with less intensity. 

Israel was under pressure from the U.S. and Europe to moderate its response and faced the challenge of delivering a blow that would punish Iran for the attack without provoking a response. 

Iran has ramped up warnings in recent days that it would respond aggressively to any Israeli strike. It also signaled Thursday that it could accelerate work on nuclear weapons if its nuclear facilities were targeted.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud party that he was determined to respond to Iran, but that the action would be “sensible and not something irresponsible,” according to a person familiar with the matter.


An air-defense system at a military base in northern Tehran on Wednesday. PHOTO: VAHID SALEMI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
An air-defense system at a military base in northern Tehran on Wednesday. PHOTO: VAHID SALEMI/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right leader in the country, was the first senior Israeli official to comment on the strike in Iran. He wrote a one-word post on X: “Weak.”

Israel has otherwise remained officially silent about the strike. 

The direct exchange of blows between Israel and Iran risks taking the conflict that began with militant group Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel to a dangerous new level, one that threatens to embroil the U.S. and Gulf states in a regional conflagration that they have worked hard to prevent.Iran had long pursued its conflict with Israel through a network of Middle East proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as it sought to avoid a full-scale conventional conflict. It changed that equation with the direct strike against Israel, gambling that it could reset the informal rules that have provided some predictability to the strikes and counterstrikes over the years.

Israeli officials have said the direct strikes demanded a response. The overnight strike isn’t Israel’s first attack within Iran’s territory. 

In January 2023, an Israeli drone strike inside Iran hit an advanced weapons-production facility, according to people familiar with the operation. The strike was carried out by Israel’s Mossad and targeted a Ministry of Defense site in Isfahan, hitting a building in four different areas with precision strikes, the people said. 

Israel never acknowledged the operation. The people familiar with the matter compared it to an Israeli quadcopter drone strike in 2022 on Iranian drone-production sites in the western city of Kermanshah. Israel is juggling a fast-growing number of military challenges. It is already fighting on three fronts: in Gaza against Hamas and on its northern border with Hezbollah, as well as trying to quell unrest in the West Bank. It is under pressure to restore deterrence with Iran but also must hold together the tenuous strategic partnership that last weekend helped it block Iran’s attack.

Keeping its fight with Iran limited would help Israel balance those challenges.

“A ‘de-escalatory strike,” Yonatan Touval, a board member at Israeli think tank Mitvim, wrote on X. “Barring any unexpected developments, Israel’s strike inside Iran earlier today may well merit the coinage of this new term.”

Anat Peled, Rory Jones, Benoit Faucon and Gordon Lubold contributed to this article.


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