Why Israel’s limited offensive against Iran was more of a message – 2024-04-24 16:32:35

Israel attacked a strategic city with a carefully calculated force, but made clear that it could strike at the heart of Iran’s nuclear program.

For more than a decade, Israel has repeatedly rehearsed bombing campaigns and missile attacks that would wipe out Iran’s nuclear production capacity, which is largely located around the city of Isfahan and the Natanz nuclear enrichment complex, 120 kilometers to the north.

That’s not what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet decided to do in the predawn hours of Friday, and in interviews, analysts and nuclear experts said the decision was telling.

So was the silence that followed. Israel said almost nothing about the limited attack, which appears to have caused little damage in Iran. U.S. officials noted that the Iranian decision to downplay the explosions in Isfahan — and suggestions by Iranian officials that Israel may not have been responsible — was a clear effort by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to avoid another round of escalation.

At the White House, officials asked the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies to remain silent about the operation, hoping to facilitate Iran’s efforts to calm tensions in the region.

But in interviews, officials were quick to add that they were concerned that relations between Israel and Iran were in a very different situation than they were just a week ago. The taboo against direct attacks on the other country’s territory had disappeared. If another action occurs — a conflict over Iran’s nuclear advances, or another attack by Israel against Iranian military officials — both countries could feel more free to launch direct attacks.

Netanyahu was under various pressures: President Joe Biden urged him to “assume victory” after Iran’s largely ineffective aerial bombardment last week, while hardliners in Israel urged him to strike back forcefully to restore deterrence following the first direct attempt to attack Israel from Iranian territory in the 45 years since the Iranian revolution.

U.S. officials said they quickly realized they were not going to talk Netanyahu out of some kind of visible response.

That’s why the White House and Pentagon urged what one senior U.S. official called “a signal, not an attack,” with minimal risk of casualties. But although this was a minimalist option, its long-term effects on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the teams of scientists working on the Iranian nuclear program could be substantial. They could accelerate a move to put more nuclear facilities underground, or expand them to make it even more difficult for nuclear inspectors to understand where Iran is conducting its most sensitive operations.

And, U.S. officials fear, that could accelerate a confrontation over the nuclear program itself, which has become increasingly unintelligible to inspectors over the past two years.

The signal sent by the decision to attack a conventional military target in Isfahan was clear: Israel demonstrated that it could pierce Isfahan’s layers of air defenses, many of them deployed around key sites such as the Isfahan uranium conversion center.

This 25-year-old facility, relatively vulnerable to attack, is Iran’s main production line for converting its large reserves of natural uranium into a gas—called UF6—that can be fed into centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel, either for the production of energy or nuclear weapons.

Israeli warplanes also fired missiles at Iran during the attack, suggesting more advanced firepower than initial reports indicated.

It was not immediately clear what type of missiles were used, where they were fired from, whether some were intercepted by Iranian defenses or where they landed. But just as drones launched under Iran’s nose sent a message about Israel’s capabilities, so did guided missiles from Israeli warplanes.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, said Friday that Israel had notified the United States through multiple channels shortly before the attack. But unlike the warning Israel gave the government moments before its warplanes attacked the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, the official said this recent attack was not unexpected given all the warnings Israel had aired during the week.

“While there has been no official claim of responsibility for the overnight attack on the Isfahan military base, the message is clear: Iran’s attempt to unilaterally move the boundaries of the war in the region will not be met with silence and inaction. ”said Dana Stroul, a former senior Pentagon official for Middle East policy who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “A state-on-state attack with drones and missiles will have a response.”

“However, last night’s attack was precise and limited,” Stroul added. “The message is that Iranian air defenses are completely penetrable, and its forces cannot protect its military bases from external attack. But the damage was limited. If Iranian leaders decide that further escalation is not worth the risk of a much more lethal and costly attack within their own territory, this cycle of escalation can be closed.”

Long-term effects are more difficult to predict. Vali Nasr, an Iran expert and former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, recently noted that Iran has likely decided to “move its weapons closer to Israel,” and could face new pressure at home to openly seek deterrence. nuclear.

Iran has banned the entry of some inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose mission is to monitor the use of global nuclear energy. It has enriched uranium to 60 percent purity, putting it within days or weeks of the quality needed to make bombs. And at the height of the conflict with Israel last weekend, some senior officials spoke publicly that Iran might reconsider its official position, which is that it would never seek to develop a weapon.

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