Israel's attack was smaller than expected, as was Iran's reaction

The relatively limited scope of Israel's overnight attacks on Iran, and a moderate response by Iranian officials, may have reduced the chances of an immediate escalation in clashes between the two countries, analysts said on Friday.

There have been fears for days that a strong Israeli response to Iran's attack on southern Israel last weekend could provoke an even more aggressive response from Iran, potentially turning an “eye for an eye” confrontation into a broader war. Foreign leaders have advised Israel to view its successful defense against Iran's missile barrage as a victory that requires no retaliation, warning of a counterattack that could further destabilize the region.

But when Friday finally arrived, the Israeli attack appeared less damaging than expected, allowing Iranian officials and state media outlets to downplay its significance, at least at first.

Iranian officials said that no enemy aircraft were detected in Iranian airspace and that the main attack – against a military base in central Iran – was initiated by small unmanned drones that were likely launched from inside Iranian territory . The nature of the attack even had precedent: Israel used similar methods in an attack on a military facility in Isfahan early last year.

By dawn, Iranian state news outlets were predicting a quick return to normality, broadcasting footage of calm street scenes, as officials publicly dismissed the attack's impact. Airports have also reopened, after a brief overnight closure.

Analysts have warned that any outcome is still possible. But the initial Iranian reaction suggested that Iranian leaders would not rush to respond, despite warning in recent days that they would react forcefully and quickly to any Israeli attack.

“The way they present it to their own people, and the fact that the skies are already open, allows them to decide not to respond,” said Sima Shine, former head of research for Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, and an Iranian Expert.

But, he added, “We made so many errors in judgment that I'm very hesitant to say that definitively.”

In a miscalculation that sparked the current wave of violence, Israel struck the Iranian embassy compound in Syria on April 1, killing seven Iranian officials including three senior commanders.

For years, Israel had launched similar attacks against Iranian interests in Syria and Iran, without provoking a direct response from Iran. But the scale of the attack appears to have changed Iran's tolerance, with Iranian leaders warning they would no longer accept Israeli strikes against Iranian interests anywhere in the region. Early on April 14, Iran fired more than 300 missiles and drones at Israel, causing little damage but shocking Israelis with the scale of the attack.

Even if Iran does not respond similarly to the latest Israeli attack on Friday, it could still respond forcefully to future Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, Shine said.

That possibility became more pressing Friday, after Syrian authorities said Israel had again struck a site in Syria, around the same time as the attack on Iran.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack, in line with its policy of not commenting on such attacks. But if the attack harmed Iranian interests, and if Iran blamed the attack on Israel, it is unclear how Tehran will respond.

“The question is whether they will stick to the red line,” Ms. Shine said. “But what exactly is the red line? Are they just high-ranking people? Is it just the embassies? Or does it concern all Iranian targets in Syria?”

Johnatan Reiss AND Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed to the reporting.

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