May 30, 2024

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Israel planned a larger attack on Iran, but scaled it down to avoid war

Israel planned a larger attack on Iran, but scaled it down to avoid war

Israel has abandoned its plans for a more comprehensive counterattack on Iran after coordinated diplomatic pressure from the United States and other foreign allies and because the brunt of the Iranian attack on Israeli territory had been thwarted, according to three senior Israeli officials.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive discussions, said Israeli leaders originally discussed bombing several military targets across Iran last week, including near the Iranian capital Tehran, in response to the April 13 Iranian strike.

It would have been extremely difficult for Iran to overlook such a widespread and devastating attack, increasing the chances of a powerful Iranian counterattack that could have put the Middle East on the brink of a major regional conflict.

Ultimately — after President Biden, along with the British and German foreign ministers, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prevent a broader war — Israel opted for a limited strike on Friday that avoided major damage, reducing the likelihood of escalation later on. Least at the moment.

However, from the perspective of Israeli officials, the attack demonstrated to Iran the breadth and sophistication of Israel's military arsenal.

Instead of sending fighter jets into Iranian airspace, Israel fired a small number of missiles from planes stationed hundreds of miles west of it on Friday, according to Israeli officials and two senior Western officials familiar with the attack. Israel has also sent small attack drones, known as quadcopters, to overwhelm Iranian air defenses, according to Israeli officials.

Military facilities in Iran have been attacked by such drones several times in recent years, and Iran has said on several occasions that it does not know to whom the drones belong — a claim that has been interpreted as an Iranian reluctance to respond.

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The officials said that a missile hit an anti-aircraft battery on Friday in a strategically important part of central Iran, while another missile exploded in the air. An Israeli official said that the Israeli Air Force deliberately destroyed the second missile once it became clear that the first had reached its target, to avoid causing serious damage. A Western official said it was possible that the missile had malfunctioned.

The officials said Israel's intention was to allow Iran to move forward without reciprocating, while noting that Israel had developed the ability to strike Iran without entering its airspace or even blowing up its air defense batteries. Israel also hopes to demonstrate its ability to strike those batteries in a part of central Iran that includes several major nuclear facilities, including a uranium enrichment site at Natanz, an indication that it could also have reached those facilities if it tried.

The Israeli army refused to comment.

The path to this attack began on April 1, when Israel struck the Iranian embassy compound In Damascus, Syria, killing seven Iranian officials, including three senior military commanders. Iran has not responded after several similar strikes in the past, leading Israeli officials, they say, to believe they can continue to launch such attacks without provoking a major Iranian response.

But this time was different: Within a week, Iran began sending private signals to its neighbors and foreign diplomats that its patience had reached the limit and that it would respond with a major strike on Israel – its first-ever direct attack on Israeli territory.

During the week of April 8, Israel began preparing two major military responses, according to Israeli officials.

The first was a defensive operation to prevent an expected Iranian attack, in coordination with US Central Command – its commander-in-chief, General Michael E. Corella, visited Israel that week – as well as with the British, French and Jordanian armies.

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The second was a massive offensive operation that would be carried out in the event of an Iranian strike. Israeli intelligence initially believed Iran planned the attack using a “swarm” of large drones and up to 10 ballistic missiles, Israeli officials said. As the week went on, that estimate rose to 60 missiles, increasing Israel's desire to launch a powerful counterattack.

Israel's military and political leaders have begun discussing a counterstrike that could begin as soon as Iran begins launching drones — even before it is known how much damage, if any, they have caused. According to one official, the plan was presented to the Israeli Defense Cabinet by the Military Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy, and the Air Force Commander, Tomer Bar, early on Friday, April 12 — two days before the Iranian attack.

The officials said that Israel's intentions changed after the Iranian attack. The attack was larger than expected: with more than 100 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and about 30 cruise missiles, it was one of the largest attacks of this type in military history.

But the Israeli defense, coordinated with pilots from the United States, Britain, France and Jordan, shot down most of the missiles and drones, and caused only limited damage on the ground, reducing the need for a quick response. There were questions about whether Israel should risk shifting its focus from defense while the attack was still underway. Two officials said.

The turning point, however, was an early morning phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mr. Biden, during which the US president encouraged the Israeli leader to treat the successful defense as a victory that required no further response, according to three Israelis and two Israelis. Western officials, who described those discussions on the condition of anonymity. The Israelis said Mr. Netanyahu left the call opposing immediate retaliation.

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The next day, the Israeli government began sending signals to foreign allies that it still planned to respond, but in a much less restrained manner than it had previously planned, according to a senior Western official.

Israeli officials said that rather than launching a large-scale counterattack that might make Iran's leaders believe they had no choice but to respond in kind, they settled on a plan that they hoped would make a point to Iranian officials without humiliating them publicly.

Israeli officials said they initially planned the attack for Monday night, then withdrew at the last minute amid concerns that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia that has been engaged in a low-level conflict with Israel since October, might significantly increase the number of Israeli forces. The intensity of its strikes on northern Israel.

Foreign officials continued, unsuccessfully, to encourage Israel not to respond at all, and then indicated their willingness to accept an Israeli attack that left Iran with the option of moving forward without losing face, according to an Israeli and Western official.

After Israel finally carried out its attack early Friday morning, Iranian officials did just that — focusing on small drones rather than missiles and ignoring their impact.

Officials in Tehran also largely avoided blaming Israel for the attack. This, along with Israel's decision not to claim responsibility, helped reduce the risk of escalation.

Eric Schmidt And Farnaz Fasihi Contributed to reports.