Israel's attack on Iran: a limited attack but a potentially big signal

For more than a decade, Israel has attempted, time and time again, bombing and missile campaigns that would knock out Iran's nuclear production capacity, much of it based around the city of Isfahan and the nuclear enrichment complex of Natanz, 75 miles north.

That's not what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war cabinet chose to do before dawn Friday, and in interviews, analysts and nuclear experts said the decision was significant.

So was the silence that followed. Israel has said almost nothing about the limited attack, which appears to have caused little damage in Iran. U.S. officials noted that the Iranian decision to downplay the Isfahan explosions — and suggestions by Iranian officials that Israel may not have been responsible — was a clear effort by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to avoid another round of escalation.

Inside the White House, officials asked the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies to keep quiet about the operation, hoping to facilitate Iran's efforts to calm tensions in the region.

But in interviews, officials quickly added that they fear that relations between Israel and Iran are now in a very different place than just a week ago. The taboo against direct attacks on each other's territory had now disappeared. If another round were to occur – a conflict over Iran's nuclear advances, or another attack by Israel against Iranian military officials – both sides might feel freer to launch themselves directly at the other.

Netanyahu was under conflicting pressure: President Biden was urging him to “seize victory” after a largely ineffective air barrage launched by Iran last week, while hardliners in Israel were urging him to react harshly to re-establish deterrence after the first direct attempt to strike Israel from Iranian territory in the 45 years following the Iranian revolution.

American officials say they quickly realized they couldn't dissuade Netanyahu from some sort of visible response.

So the White House and Pentagon urged what amounted to what one senior American official called a “signal, not an attack,” with a minimal chance of casualties. But even if it was a minimalist option, its long-term effects on the Revolutionary Guards and the teams of scientists working on Iran's nuclear program have the potential to be substantial. They could accelerate a move to put more nuclear facilities deep underground, or to expand them to make it even harder for nuclear inspectors to figure out where Iran is doing its most sensitive work.

And, American officials fear, that could accelerate confrontation over the nuclear program itself, which has become increasingly opaque to inspectors over the past two years.

The signal sent by the decision to strike a conventional military target in Isfahan was clear: Israel has demonstrated that it can pierce Isfahan's layers of air defenses, many of them arrayed around key sites such as the Isfahan uranium conversion plant.

This plant, built 25 years ago and relatively vulnerable to a strike, is Iran's main production line for converting its large deposits of natural uranium into a gas – called UF6 – that can be fed into centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel, both energy production than for energy production. nuclear weapons.

Israeli warplanes also fired missiles at Iran during the attack, suggesting more advanced firepower was involved than initial reports indicated.

It is not yet clear what types of missiles were used, where they were launched from, whether they were intercepted by Iranian defenses or where they landed. But just as drones launched from under Iran's nose sent a message about Israel's capabilities, so did missiles guided by Israeli warplanes.

A senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments, said Friday that Israel had informed the United States through multiple channels shortly before the attack. But unlike Israel's warning to the administration moments before its warplanes struck the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, the official said this latest attack was not unexpected given all the warnings that Israel had issued during the week.

“Although there has been no official claim of responsibility for the overnight attack on the Isfahan military base, the message is clear: Iran's attempt to unilaterally move the gates of war in the region will not be met with silence and inaction,” they said. Dana Stroul, former senior Pentagon official for Middle East policy who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A state-to-state attack involving drones and missiles will receive a response.”

“However, last night's strike was precise and limited,” Stroul added. “The message is that Iranian air defenses are completely penetrable and their forces cannot protect their military bases from external attack. But the damage was limited. If Iranian leaders decide that further escalation is not worth the risk of a much more lethal and costly attack within their own territory, this cycle of escalation could close.”

Long-term effects are harder to predict. Vali Nasr, an Iran expert and former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, recently noted that Iran would likely now be determined to move its weapons “closer to Israel,” and may face new pressures at home to openly seek a nuclear. deterrent.

Iran has barred some, but not all, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog. He enriched uranium to 60% purity, putting it within days or weeks of bomb-grade quality. And at the height of the conflict with Israel last weekend, some senior commanders spoke publicly about whether Iran would reconsider its official position that it would never seek a weapon.

Julian E. Barnes contributed to the reporting.

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