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News / Nation & World

Apparent Israeli attack in Iran draws anti-aircraft fire as tensions high between Mideast rivals

State media said Iran fired air defense batteries after reporting explosions near the city of Isfahan

By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press
Published: April 19, 2024, 8:33am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An apparent Israeli drone attack near a major air base and a nuclear site around the central city of Isfahan activated Iranian air defenses early Friday, just days after Tehran’s unprecedented drone-and-missile assault on Israel.

No Iranian official directly acknowledged the possibility that Israel had attacked, and the Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment. However, regional tensions have been high since the Saturday assault on Israel amid its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and its own strikes targeting Iran in Syria.

Speaking at the G7 meeting in Capri, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the U.S. received “last-minute” information from Israel about the attack on Isfahan. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not dispute that, but said: “We were not involved in any offensive operations.”

The apparent attack came on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s 85th birthday. Israeli politicians also made comments hinting that the country had launched an attack.

Air defense batteries fired in several provinces over reports of drones being in the air, Iranian state television reported. Iranian army commander Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi said crews targeted several flying objects, but the incident caused no damage.

Analysts said the relatively limited scope of the Israeli attack and the subdued response by Iran seemed to indicate the threat of an immediate escalation had diminished.

That “both sides downplayed it is the biggest of stories” out of the latest attack, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute research center. “Neither side is ready to jump over the brink.’’

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres called for an end to the strikes.

“It is high time to stop the dangerous cycle of retaliation in the Middle East,” his office said.

Authorities said air defenses fired at a major air base in Isfahan, which long has been home to Iran’s fleet of American-made F-14 Tomcats — purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Tasnim news agency published a video from one of its reporters, who said he was in the southeastern Zerdenjan area of Isfahan, near its “nuclear energy mountain.” The footage showed two different anti-aircraft gun positions, and details of the video corresponded with known features of the site of Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan.

“At 4:45, we heard gunshots,” he said. “It was the air defense, these guys that you’re watching, and over there too.”

The facility at Isfahan operates three small Chinese-supplied research reactors, as well as handling fuel production and other activities for Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

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Isfahan also is home to sites associated with Iran’s nuclear program, including its underground Natanz enrichment site, which has been repeatedly targeted by suspected Israeli sabotage attacks.

State television described all atomic sites in the area as “fully safe.” The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, also said “there is no damage to Iran’s nuclear sites” after the incident.

The IAEA “continues to call for extreme restraint from everybody and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target in military conflicts,” the agency said.

Iran’s nuclear program has rapidly advanced to producing enriched uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels since the collapse of its atomic deal with world powers after then-President Donald Trump withdrew America from the accord in 2018.

While Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, Western nations and the IAEA say Tehran operated a secret military weapons program until 2003. The IAEA has warned that Iran now holds enough enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons if it chose to do so — though the U.S. intelligence community maintains Tehran is not actively seeking the bomb.

Dubai-based carriers Emirates and FlyDubai began diverting around western Iran about 4:30 a.m. local time as local warnings went out to aviators.

Iran then grounded commercial flights in Tehran and across areas of its western and central regions. Iran later restored normal flight service, authorities said.

Around the time of the incident in Iran, Syria’s state-run SANA news agency quoted a military statement saying Israel carried out a missile strike targeting an southern air defense unit and causing damage. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the strike hit a military radar for government forces. It was not clear if there were casualties, the Observatory said.

That area of Syria is directly west of Isfahan, some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, and east of Israel.

Meanwhile in Iraq, where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents of Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions. Authorities later found what appeared to be recent fragments of an air-to-surface missile near Latifiya, southwest of Baghdad. In Iran’s initial attack on Israel, it did not use such weapons — though Israel has several types available for its air force, raising the possibility it was fired Friday as part of the attack.

An official with an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists, said the missile had been shot down as a result of jamming operations. The Iraqi army does not have jamming devices of the type apparently used to down the missile, but Iran has provided such devices to its affiliated militias.

The apparent attack also briefly spooked energy markets, sending benchmark Brent crude above $90 before it fell again in trading Friday.

However, Iranian state-run media sought to downplay the incident after the fact. That could be intentional, particularly after Iranian officials for days have been threatening to retaliate for any Israeli retaliatory attack on the nation.

“As long as Iran continues to deny the attack and deflect attention from it and no further hits are seen, there is space for both sides to climb down the escalation ladder for now,” said Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

Vatanka, the Middle East Institute analyst, agreed, but with a major caveat.

“Probably we’re going to go back to the proxy war, “ he said, but now it’s a proxy war with the risk of “that sudden eruption of state-to-state war. Which we didn’t have to worry about before.”

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