Strike Was Meant to Show Iran that Israel Could Paralyze Its Defenses


An Israeli airstrike on Iran on Friday damaged an air defense system, according to Western and Iranian officials, and appeared calculated to deliver a message that Israel could bypass Iran’s defensive systems undetected and paralyze them.

The strike damaged a defensive battery near Natanz, a city in central Iran that is critical to the country’s nuclear weapons program, according to the officials.

Even though the Israeli attack was in retaliation for Iran’s aerial barrage last week, it used a fraction of the firepower Tehran deployed. That attack, intercepted by Israel and its allies, caused minimal damage.

The strike on Friday was the latest salvo in a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the two countries this month that have heightened fears of a broader regional conflict. The relatively limited scope of Israel’s strike and the muted response from Iranian officials, however, seem to have eased tensions.

The two Iranian officials said the strike on Friday had damaged an S-300 antiaircraft system at a military base in the nearby province of Isfahan. The officials’ account is supported by satellite imagery analyzed by The New York Times, which showed damage to the radar of an S-300 system at the Eighth Shekari Air Base in Isfahan.

It was unclear what sort of weapon struck the Iranian air defense system. Three Western and two Iranian officials confirmed on Friday that Israel had deployed aerial drones and at least one missile fired from a warplane. Previously, Iranian officials said the attack on the military base had been conducted by small drones, most likely launched from inside Iranian territory.

A missile, two Western officials said, was fired from a warplane far from Israeli or Iranian airspace and included technology that enabled it to evade Iran’s radar defenses. Neither the missile nor the aircraft that fired it entered Jordanian airspace, the Western officials said, a gesture meant to keep the kingdom out of the conflict after it helped shoot down Iranian weapons last week.

The two Iranian officials said that Iran’s military had not detected anything entering Iran’s airspace on Friday, including drones, missiles and aircraft. Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, reported that no missile attacks had occurred and that Iran’s air defense system had not been activated.

Israel, the two Western officials said, had scrapped an earlier plan to fire back on Iran with a large-scale attack. That plan, they said, was replaced with a strike intended to send a quiet but decisive message with the aim of ending the cycle of reprisal.

Israel’s use of drones launched from inside Iran and a missile that it could not detect, the Western officials said, was intended to give Iran a taste of what a larger-scale attack might look like. The attack, they said, was calibrated to make Iran think twice before launching a direct attack on Israel in the future.

Officials from both Iran and Israel refrained from speaking publicly about Friday’s attack, a move that appeared aimed at de-escalating a conflict some fear could spiral into a broader regional war. Israel’s silence on the attack, an Iranian official said, would allow Tehran to treat the strike as it had previous clandestine attacks in the countries’ long-running shadow war and not prompt an immediate response.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.


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