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Iran Launches First Direct Attack On Israel

(April 13, 2024)

Iran Launches Strike
Arab States Respond
Restraining Israel

Israel Retaliates


On April 1, 2024, Israel dramatically escalated the fight with Iran when it was believed to have bombed a building in Damascus the Iranians claimed was a consulate (Israel does not typically acknowledge responsibility for such attacks). The strike killed Gen. Mohamad Reza Zahedi, who oversaw Iran’s covert military operations in Syria and Lebanon, two other generals, and four officers in the Quds Force. It would be unusual for  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers to work out of a consulate rather than the embassy. Still, Iran may have believed the building would have been regarded as equally protected as a diplomatic office.

Iran and Hezbollah vowed revenge and said Israeli embassies were no longer safe. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Israel “must be punished and shall be” for an operation he said was equivalent to an attack on Iranian soil. Israel said it was prepared for any threat.

Almost from the time of the strike in Damascus, the U.S. and Israel began preparing for an Iranian response. Reuters said that Iran warned Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq 72 hours in advance of its plan to attack. Turkey said it informed the U.S., which the administration denied. Nevertheless, President Joe Biden announced on April 12, 2024, that Iran would attack Israel “sooner rather than later.” He said he had one word for Iran, “Don’t,” and reiterated America’s commitment. “We will support Israel. We will defend — help defend Israel. And Iran will not succeed,” Biden stated. America’s commitment to Israel, he repeatedly said, was “ironclad.”

To reinforce his words, Biden ordered U.S. warships and other assets to be positioned to defend Israel and American troops.

Iran was undeterred by the president’s warning and Israeli threats of reprisal.

Iran Launches Strike

On April 13, 2024, Iran launched a drone attack. The slow-moving drones gave Israel several hours to prepare, and the public throughout most of the country was told to head to bomb shelters, school and other events were canceled, and air defense forces, which were already on high alert, began monitoring incoming threats. Later, Iran launched ballistic missiles that traveled much faster, offering a much shorter warning time.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the nation: “We appreciate the U.S. standing alongside Israel, as well as the support of Britain, France, and many other countries. We have determined a clear principle: Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We will defend ourselves against any threat and will do so level-headedly and with determination.”

The extent of the danger was unclear, but it was known Iran had far greater firepower and more lethal weapons than those used by Hamas. Israel was concerned a simultaneous attack by a large number of drones and missiles could overwhelm its air defenses, especially if Hezbollah launched some of its 150,000 missiles.

Israel closed its airspace, as did other countries in the region.

Altogether, some 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles were launched from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The missiles Iran fired carried 750kg warheads, and drones 50kg warheads. By comparison, a Katyusha rocket used by Hezbollah has a 20kg warhead.

Netanyahu said: “We intercepted. We blocked. Together we will win.”

The Nevatim air base in the Negev desert, where some of Israel’s F-35 fighters are based, sustained four hits. One near a runway, two in open areas, and one near a building under construction. Operations were unaffected. The only casualty from the attack was a seven-year-old Bedouin girl seriously wounded by falling shrapnel. No other destruction or injuries were reported.

Officials told the Wall Street Journal, “The Iranian missiles and drones were tracked from the moment they launched by early warning radars in Persian Gulf countries linked to the U.S. operations center in Qatar, which transmitted the information to fighter jets from several countries in the airspace over Jordan and other countries, as well as to warships at sea and missile-defense batteries in Israel.”

The administration said that 99% of the Iranian projectiles were shot down, most before reaching Israeli territory. U.S. Central Command said aircraft intercepted 80 drones, and at least six ballistic missiles were shot down by U.S. guided-missile destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. A U.S. Patriot air-defense system stationed in Iraq also downed a ballistic missile.

Israel used its multi-layered array of anti-missile defenses, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow to intercept incoming threats.

Arab States Respond

Jordan’s criticism of Israel’s war against Hamas proved not to be an impediment to the Jordanian Air Force intercepting drones that entered its airspace. “Despite all of the political tensions between Jordan and Israel, the military and intelligence relationship never stopped,” according to Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What happened on Saturday night should be a reminder not only to the Jordanians but also to the Israelis of the importance of their relationship,” al-Omari said.

Jordan also acted out of self-interest, as Iran has threatened the kingdom’s stability. “The Iranians have their eyes on Jordan, they look at it as the weakest link in the region,” al-Omari added. “And the Jordanian military considers Iran to be the most prominent threat in the area, due to the presence of Iran-sponsored militias on the Syrian border and the eastern border [with Iraq]. They are very concerned about the Iranian influence extending into the West Bank [which shares a long border with Jordan] through Hamas.”

Saudi Arabia’s role was downplayed for political reasons, though a source in the royal family acknowledged that “any suspicious entity” in Saudi airspace is automatically intercepted. The kingdom and the United Arab Emirates provided intelligence to the United States, including information they received from Iran on its intentions.

This was the first time Arab countries fought on Israel’s behalf.

“Gulf countries know they still don’t have the same level of support that Israel gets from the United States and see what they did [Saturday] as a way of getting it in the future,” Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Wall Street Journal.

The British sent Typhoon fighters based in Cyprus to participate in the mission. They shot down between 10 and 20 drones.

France participated but claimed only to defend airspace near its regional bases.

Just after 1 a.m., Iran posted a message on X: “Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus. The matter can be deemed concluded.” It was unclear if that announcement would be sufficient to discourage an Israeli counterattack. Ultimately, Israel did not respond.

The attack was an unprecedented direct aggression from Iranian soil onto Israeli territory. Israel had carried out numerous covert missions in Iran, but Iran had never responded with a strike on the Jewish state.

The attack was successful in demonstrating Iran was not deterred by Israel or the United States and allowing the leadership to tell their people they had responded to what they considered Israeli aggression and had inflicted pain on the enemy. It also exposed, however, the regime’s weakness. Its barrage caused virtually no damage, some of its most sophisticated weapons proved easy to shoot down, nearly half its missiles exploded on the launch pad or fell short of their targets, and Hezbollah launched only 40 rockets rather than thousands, either at Iran’s direction or out of fear of Israel’s reaction.

The U.S. also successfully mobilized a joint response for the first time involving Western, Arab, and Israeli military assets.

For Israel, the brief engagement was expensive in terms of the military assets it had to use and would need to be replenished, such as Arrow missiles ($3.5 million each). One estimate put the cost at more than $1 billion. No dollar could be placed on the fear inspired in the population.

On the positive side, at least in the short run, Israel regained world sympathy, reaffirmed the strength of the alliance with the United States, provoked a UN Security Council discussion focused on Iran, prompted Congress to fast-track aid to Israel, and diverted attention from the war in Gaza.

Restraining Israel

Israel was expected to retaliate with some supporters, like former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton, suggesting they use the opportunity to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. Biden, however, told Netanyahu to “take the win,” referring to the prevention of damage and casualties. As he had from the start of the war in Gaza, Biden was determined to avoid the war expanding, though it clearly had, and having the U.S. sucked into a direct confrontation with Iran. He advised Israel to “slow things down and think through” before responding and told Netanyahu the United States would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel reportedly had a pre-approved plan to attack Iran, but Netanyahu was convinced in his call with President Biden not to respond immediately.

Iran warned that it would defend itself against any Israeli attack and respond “proportionately” if the United States became involved. More ominously, Saeed Laylaz, former advisor to President Mohammad Khatami, said, “If Israel or the U.S. respond to the Islamic Republic’s attacks, the Islamic Republic will test its first nuclear bomb.”

Leaders of the Group of 7 nations, which include the United States, France, and Britain, issued a joint declaration that reaffirmed support for Israel and accused Iran of “provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation” that must be avoided.

The Security Council held an emergency meeting on April 14, during which Secretary-General António Guterres said it was “time to step back from the brink.” Other leaders urged restraint. In the days after, U.S. officials continued to warn Israel against “escalation.” Similar messages were delivered in person by the foreign ministers of Britain and Germany who visited Israel on April 17.

To further discourage Israeli action, the U.S. and Europeans said they intended to impose new sanctions on Iran. The Iranians also hoped to convince the Biden administration to restrain Israel by saying it would not engage in further attacks. “We told the Americans in messages clearly” that Iran’s decision “to punish” Israel was “definite and final,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi also that even the “tiniest” attack by Israel would bring a “severe and harsh response.”  

Netanyahu said allies “have all kinds of suggestions and advice, which I appreciate; however, I would also like to clarify — we will make our decisions ourselves. The state of Israel will do whatever is necessary to defend itself.”

Israel had plans to attack Iran before April. Axios reported that Israel was prepared to retaliate on April 15 but decided to postpone the operation. The Biden administration hoped that any attack would be limited enough not to lead to a further Iranian response. In his phone call with Netanyahu on the day of the Iranian assault, Biden had urged the prime minister to “be careful and strategic.” Before his call with Biden, Israel planned to hit multiple military targets, including ones near Tehran.

Given the composition of the General Assembly and the presence of Iranian allies China and Russia on the Security Council, the UN was not expected to condemn the Iranian attack. However, the representatives of 48 countries, including the United States, issued a joint statement on April 17 denouncing the attack. In addition, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution by a margin of 404-14 that  “condemns the Iranian attack, reaffirms and supports Israel’s right to self-defense; stands with Israel as it defends itself against Iran’s attack and seeks to re-establish deterrence against Iran and its proxies; fully supports Israel’s right to respond to this aggression through military, diplomatic, economic, and other necessary means.”

Meanwhile, one negative consequence of the attack was that most airlines canceled flights to and from Israel for an unspecified period.

Israel Retaliates

On April 19, Israel reportedly responded to the Iranian attack. Though it took no public responsibility, the Biden administration leaked information that Israel struck multiple targets, including a military base, in Isfahan. Few details were available, but it appeared Israel had attacked radars in Iraq and Syria and fired cruise missiles from aircraft from outside Iranian airspace. One missile hit an antiaircraft battery defending a site associated with the nuclear program. An Israeli official told the New York Times that the Israeli Air Force intentionally destroyed a second missile to avoid causing too much damage once it became clear that the first had reached its target.

The strike was carefully calibrated to cause minimum damage and few, if any, casualties. Israel did not attack nearby nuclear facilities. Though it was impossible to predict the Iranian response, the initial reaction suggested there would be no further escalation. Rather than blame Israel or announce any damage, Iran downplayed the attack and told the public that its defenses had shot down three incoming drones and that no damage had been caused. This was very different than the bellicose warning from President Ebrahim Raisi, who had warned that Tehran would deliver a “severe response” to any attack on its territory.

Though the Israeli strike was limited, it sent a powerful message that it could penetrate Iranian defenses and hit targets, including nuclear facilities, anywhere in the country. As Biden wanted, it appeared to reduce the likelihood of escalation and drawing the U.S., which informed Iran it had nothing to do with the attack and was only informed of it by Israel shortly before it commenced, into a war with Iran. Israel’s restraint also was meant to preserve the “coalition of the willing” that had come to Israel’s aid.

Sources: Andrea Shalal, “Biden says he expects Iran to attack Israel soon, warns: ‘Don’t,’” Reuters, (April 12, 2024).
Ron Kampeas, “Iran launches missiles, drones at Israel, marking unprecedented escalation of regional tensions,” JTA, (April 13, 2024).
Karen DeYoung and Matt Viser, “Biden counsels Netanyahu to ‘slow things down’ after Iranian attack,” Washington Post, (April 14, 2024).
Emanuel Fabian and Jacob Magid, “WATCH: IAF fighter jets down Iranian drones; footage shows minor damage to airbase,” Times of Israel, (April 14, 2024).
Sophia Yan, “How RAF Typhoons and their pilots’ bionic helmets helped Israel repel Iran’s drone onslaught,” Telegraph, (April 14, 2024).
Benjamin Weinthal, “Slain Iranian general planned, executed Hamas’s massacre,” Jerusalem Post, (April 14, 2024).
Barak Ravid, “U.S. urges Israel to be ‘careful and strategic’ regarding response to Iran attack,” Axios, (April 14, 2024).
Alexandra Lukash, “The staggering cost of Israel’s defense against Iran’s missile attack: ‘4-5 billion shekels per night,’” Ynet, (April 14, 2024).
Matthew Mpoke Bigg, “What We Know About Iran’s Attack on Israel and What Happens Next,” New York Times, (April 15, 2024).
Gianluca Pacchiani, “Jordan’s help against Iran shows relationship with Israel still strong, despite Gaza,” Times of Israel, (April 15, 2024).
David S. Cloud, Dov Lieber, Stephen Kalin, and Summer Said, “How the U.S. Forged a Fragile Middle Eastern Alliance to Repel Iran’s Israel Attack,” Wall Street Journal, (April 15, 2024).
“Saudi Arabia says it helped defend Israel against Iran,” Jerusalem Post, (April 15, 2024).
“Cameron arrives in Israel, urges de-escalation,” BICOM, (April 17, 2024).
Barak Ravid, “Israel considered striking Iran on Monday but decided to wait, officials say,” Axios, (April 17, 2024).
Bryan Pietsch, “Britain, Germany urge Israel to exercise restraint in response to Iran,” Washington Post, (April 18, 2024).
Annabelle Timsit, “Iran told U.S. it wants to avoid escalation after Israel strike, official says,” Washington Post, (April 18, 2024).
Richard Engel, “Iran warns any Israeli attack would bring ‘severe and harsh response,’” NBC News, (April 18, 2024).
“PM shelved pre-approved plans for immediate Iran reprisal after Biden call — report,” Times of Israel, (April 18, 2024).
Laurence Norman and Aresu Eqbali, “Iran Threatens to Work on Nuclear Arms if Israel Attacks Nuclear Sites,” Wall Street Journal, (April 18, 2024).
“Iranian air base reportedly attacked in ‘limited’ Israeli reprisal strike,” Times of Israel, (April 19, 2024).
Shoshana Bryen, “‘Pocketing the Win’ for the Future,” Insight, (April 19, 2024).
Ronen Bergman and Patrick Kingsley, “Israel Planned Bigger Attack on Iran, but Scaled It Back to Avoid War,” New York Times, (April 22, 2024).

Map: IDF.