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Israel launches missile strikes into Iran, U.S. military official says

Demonstrators wave a huge Iranian flag in an anti-Israeli gathering in front of an anti-Israeli banner on the wall of a building at the Felestin (Palestine) Sq. in Tehran, Iran, on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Demonstrators wave a huge Iranian flag in an anti-Israeli gathering in front of an anti-Israeli banner on the wall of a building at the Felestin (Palestine) Sq. in Tehran, Iran, on Monday.
Vahid Salemi | AP

Updated: 12:30 p.m.

Israel launched missiles into Iran late Thursday in the retaliatory strike it had promised — and that Western leaders had sought to temper — following Tehran’s attack on Israel on Sunday.

A senior U.S. military official confirmed to NPR that the Israeli military had conducted missile strikes against Iran. But little else is known about the extent of the strikes and any potential damage, as both Israel and Iran appeared to downplay the attack on Friday morning — which analysts suggest points to an effort to de-escalate regional tensions.

“This is a very dangerous moment, but I think Israel has done about as intelligent a thing as they can do under this circumstance,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, retired commander of U.S. Central Command, told Morning Edition. “No one knows exactly what happened and maybe, just maybe, we’ll avoid any possibility of significant escalation as a result of it.”

Details about the attack remain scarce. Citing a military official in the central city of Isfahan, Iran state news agency IRNA said loud sounds heard nearby were that of air defenses intercepting a “suspicious target,” with no damage reported in the area.

Isfahan is home to several military facilities, including Iran’s largest nuclear research complex. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed on social media that the nuclear sites were not damaged.

There were also reports of explosions in Iraq and Syria. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said Israel targeted air defense sites in its southern region, causing “material damage.”

World leaders are calling for a de-escalation of the conflict and continued efforts to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the hopes of averting a wider regional conflict.

Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Morning Edition that by downplaying the strike, Iran seems to have found a way to avoid the retaliation it had promised in the case of an Israeli attack — at least for now.

“Given the circumstances of where we are, this could have turned out much worse,” Parsi added. “But it’s not over yet, so we shouldn’t draw too big of a conclusion quite yet.”

How are Israel and Iran responding?

Reaction to the strikes appears fairly muted in both countries.

In Iran, state TV apparently laughed off the attack, and social media posted mocking memes. Iran temporarily suspended flights at airports nationwide but resumed them on Friday morning.

Israel’s Home Front Command System, which issues threat alerts to civilians, didn’t raise its threat level. The country didn’t suspend flights, but German airline group Lufthansa announced Friday morning it would suspend flights to Israel and Iraq until at least early Saturday due to the “current situation.” (It had already suspended Tehran flights through the end of April.)

Israeli officials were largely quiet in the aftermath of the attack — the Washington Post reports they complied with a gag order — with a few notable exceptions.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s hard-line national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, tweeted out a single word — Hebrew slang meaning “weak” — by way of criticizing the strike.

Iranian state-affiliated news agency Tasnim seized on his comment, saying Israeli authorities are “making fools of themselves.” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid called the tweet “unforgivable,” saying Ben-Gvir had embarrassed Israel “from Tehran to Washington.”

The tension over Ben-Gvir’s tweet encapsulates the fervor of the debate within and beyond Israel about how the country should respond to Iran’s attack, the first launched on Israel from its own soil.

How did we get here?

The Middle East has teetered on the edge of wider conflict since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, an attack Israel says killed 1,200 people and took another roughly 250 hostage. Israel’s subsequent military operations in Gaza have killed more than 34,000 people, according to the territory’s health officials.

To make a very long story short: Iran backs three key militant groups involved in the current conflict: Hamas, Hezbollah (which is trading fire with Israel across its northern border with Lebanon) and the Houthis, which have attacked international commercial vessels in the Red Sea in recent months.

Iran also supports the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, which Israel says Iran uses to ship weapons to Hezbollah. Warplanes bombed Iran’s Consulate in Damascus earlier this month, in a strike that Iran said killed at least seven officials — Israel did not confirm or deny responsibility, but Iran blamed Israel and threatened retaliation.

In response, Iran fired hundreds of drones and missiles toward Israel on Sunday. The vast majority were intercepted, with the help of the U.S., U.K., France and Jordan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since been under pressure from far-right members of his war cabinet to respond swiftly and decisively in Iran, and from the U.S. and other Western leaders to move cautiously to avoid a wider regional war.

McKenzie believes Israel threaded the needle with its response, simultaneously signaling to Iran that “we’re not going to try to over-escalate here” but “we can do this again at a much larger scale.”

What’s the U.S. saying?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Italy for a previously scheduled meeting of G7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.). He kept his answer short when asked about the Israeli strike.

“The U.S. has not been involved in any offensive operations,” he said. “What we’re focused on, what the G7 is focused on ... is our work to de-escalate tensions.”

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who chaired the G7 meeting, told reporters on Friday that the U.S. said it had received “last minute” information from Israel about a drone action in Iran.

That kind of vague warning is standard practice for Israel, which has not shared any detailed military plans — only general outlines — for its operations in Gaza since October. A senior official told NPR that Israel told the U.S. the night before the consulate strike only that it was mounting an operation in Damascus, and didn’t provide details until the next day.

The White House has not publicly commented.

The U.S. and the U.K. imposed a fresh round of sanctions against Iran earlier on Thursday in response to its weekend attack. President Biden said in a statement at the time that the sanctions aimed to increase economic pressure on Iran and restrict its “destabilizing” military programs.

“Let it be clear to all those who enable or support Iran’s attacks: The United States is committed to Israel’s security,” he said. “We are committed to the security of our personnel and partners in the region. And we will not hesitate to take all necessary action to hold you accountable.”

What are world leaders saying?

Foreign leaders — from China to the U.K. to Russia to Australia — are calling on Israel and Iran to de-escalate tensions, and for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

Egypt’s foreign ministry expressed “deep concern about the continuing escalation between Israel and Iran” and called for the “highest levels” of restraint, according to a statement translated by the Washington Post. Turkish officials made similar calls, though pinned the blame squarely on “Israel’s illegal attack” on the Iranian Consulate.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s chief diplomat, said at the G7 meeting that existing EU sanctions against Iran would be strengthened to punish Tehran and prevent future attacks on Israel, the Associated Press reports. But he also urged Israel to exercise restraint.

“I don’t want to exaggerate, but we are on the edge of a war, a regional war in the Middle East, which will be sending shockwaves to the rest of the world, and in particular to Europe,” he warned. “So stop it.”

The spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement that he believes it is “high time to stop the dangerous cycle of retaliation in the Middle East” and is appealing “to the international community to work together to prevent any further development that could lead to devastating consequences for the entire region and beyond.”

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