Satellite image seen by ToI shows damage to radar system

In ‘message,’ IDF said to fire missiles at radar defense for secret Iran nuclear site

US reports say missiles fired from outside Iran hit air base in Isfahan, not nearby fortified Natanz atomic center; Iran insists only small drones used; missile debris found in Iraq

This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows Iran's Natanz nuclear site, on April 14, 2023. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)
This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows Iran's Natanz nuclear site, on April 14, 2023. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

An alleged Israeli strike in Iran overnight Thursday-Friday went beyond the scope of several small drones described by Tehran, US media reported later Friday. The strike reportedly included three missiles launched by Israeli Air Force warplanes that targeted an air defense radar site near Isfahan that was part of an array defending the nearby top-secret Natanz nuclear site.

The reports, first published by ABC, cited a US official as saying that the missiles were fired from outside of Iranian airspace.

According to the ABC report, the strike was “very limited.” It said that according to an initial assessment, the strike took out the radar site, but the assessment had not yet been completed.

The ABC report did not say if the missiles were in addition to the drones reported by Iran.

A New York Times report late on Friday, which also said Israeli planes fired the missiles, noted that the new information suggested that the Israel strike “included more advanced firepower than initial reports indicated.”

The Times said it was “not immediately clear the types of missiles used, from where they were fired, whether any were intercepted by Iran’s defenses or where they landed.”

Iran had claimed earlier that three small drones were involved in the attack on Isfahan. State TV said that the small aircraft were destroyed by air defenses, and it made no mention of any missiles or damage in the attack.

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.

Israel has not officially commented on the strike.

People visit the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in front of the Shah Mosque in Iran’s central city of Isfahan on April 19, 2024. (Rasoul Shojaei/IRNA/AFP)

Citing “senior US military sources,” Fox News reported that the target of the strike was a military base in Isfahan,  and not the not the heavily fortified nuclear facilities themselves which lie some 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the north of the city, largely buried under a mountain.

“The Israelis hit what they intended to strike,” one of the sources told Fox News, adding that there was one main target that was hit multiple times and that Iran’s Russian-made air defense system was proven ineffective.

The targets of the strike included air defense systems at the military base, which is used to protect the nearby nuclear facilities, Fox reported.

Israel’s message with the strike was to sell the Iranians on the idea that “we can reach out and touch you,” the source said.

An Iranian military truck carries parts of a S-300 air defence missile system during a military parade as part of a ceremony marking the country’s annual army day, in Tehran on April 17, 2024. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Satellite imagery seen by The Times of Israel showed damage to the radar system near Isfahan Airport. The imagery was not immediately permitted for publication, per the policy of the agency that took the photo.

Additional synthetic aperture radar satellite images taken Friday also showed evidence that the radar site was targeted.

While Israeli authorities were officially silent on the strike, a number of politicians and former officials spoke out about it.

Speaking to Channel 12 news, retired general Israel Ziv, a former IDF operations chief, said that if the attack was carried out by Israel, it was not intended to cause major destruction, but to send a “very clear message to Iran,” demonstrating the “technological gap” between Israel and Iran and highlighting the IDF’s ability to penetrate Iran’s most sensitive sites.

In a call hours after the strike, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the Pentagon said, adding that they discussed “maintaining stability in the Middle East,” among other issues.

Despite the reports that the radar site had been destroyed, satellite images published by CNN did not appear to show any extensive damage to Iran’s Isfahan air base.

The synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite images were taken around 10:18 a.m. local time — five hours after the strike.

“There does not appear to be any large craters in the ground and there are no apparent destroyed buildings,” CNN said, noting that the findings needed to be confirmed by regular satellite pictures that could detect things like burn scars.

SAR images are created by a satellite transmitting radar beams capable of passing through clouds, like the ones currently preventing satellites from imaging the area. Those radar beams bounce off objects on the ground, and echo back to the satellite.

Despite the reports, Iran continued to insist that only several small drones were launched and that they had not caused any damage.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said drones caused no damage or casualties, in comments made to the envoys of Muslim countries in New York and cited by Iranian media.

“The Zionist regime’s media supporters, in a desperate effort, tried to make victory out of their defeat, while the downed mini-drones have not caused any damage or casualties,” he was quoted as saying.

In a meeting with his Brazilian counterpart, Amir-Abdollahian said: “The main factor for stability and security in the region is to stop the Zionist regime’s crimes in Gaza and the West Bank and establishing a lasting ceasefire.”

Iranians wave the flags of Palestine and Iran as they gather during an anti-Israel demonstration after the Friday noon prayer in Tehran on April 19, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Amir-Abdollahian visited New York to attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on the Middle East.

The reports that Israel fired missiles appear to correlate with debris found in Iraq in the morning after residents of Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions.

Images showed what appeared to be parts of a two-stage standoff air-to-surface missile near Latifiya, southwest of Baghdad, which would have fallen away after the missile launch, although this remains unconfirmed.

Israel has several types of these munitions available for its air force, raising the possibility it was fired as part of the attack.

Amid reports that Israeli missiles were fired at Iran overnight April 18-19, 2024, Iraqi officials inspect parts of a missile found some 45 miles southwest of Baghdad, on April 19, 2024. The footage shows what appears to be parts of a two-stage standoff air-to-surface missile. (Youtube screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Also, 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 a 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 (932 miles) away, and east of Israel and could provide an indication of the route taken by Israeli jets.

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.”

Isfahan, Natanz and Iran’s nuclear program

Much of Iran’s nuclear production capability “is based around Isfahan and the Natanz nuclear enrichment complex 75 miles to the north,” the New York Times reported late Friday. And Israel has repeatedly rehearsed bombing and missile strikes to take it out, the paper noted.

While the Israeli government chose not to do so early Friday, the paper added, US officials were now worried that relations between Israel and Iran were “in a very different place than they had been just a week ago. The taboo against direct strikes on each other’s territory was now gone. If there is another round — a conflict over Iran’s nuclear advances, or another strike by Israel on Iranian military officers — both sides might feel more free to launch directly at the other.”

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.

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

The deeply fortified underground Natanz enrichment site, meanwhile, has been repeatedly targeted by suspected Israeli sabotage attacks.

State television described all atomic sites in the area as “fully safe.” The United Nations’s 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-US 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 US intelligence community maintains Tehran is not actively seeking the bomb.

Iran’s insistence that the strike was carried out by drones and caused no damage, appeared to be part of an effort to play down the severity of the attack.

Iran has no plan for immediate retaliation against Israel, a senior Iranian official said. The Iranian official also cast doubt on whether Israel was behind the attack in Isfahan, despite comments from some Israeli politicians practically accepting responsibility.

Together with a subdued response from official Iranian media organs, the senior official’s comments indicated that Tehran may be uninterested in risking war to make good on threats that it would attack Israel should it retaliate for a weekend missile and drone attack, and was seeking a way to avoid being held to the bellicose promises.

“The foreign source of the incident has not been confirmed,” the Iranian official said on condition of anonymity.

“We have not received any external attack, and the discussion leans more toward infiltration than attack.”

They added that Iran has no plan to strike back immediately over the attack.

In a speech, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi hailed Tehran’s unprecedented retaliatory attack on Israel almost a week ago, but made no mention of the latest blasts.

That operation “showed our authority, our people’s will of steel and our unity,” Raisi told hundreds of people in Semnan province, east of Tehran.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during an Army Day parade at a military base in northern Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Raisi warned that the ‘tiniest invasion’ by Israel would bring a ‘massive and harsh’ response. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

In most official comments and news reports, there was no mention of Israel, and state television carried analysts and pundits who appeared dismissive about the scale.

In Israel, authorities were officially mum, but a number of politicians and former officials spoke out about the strike.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a hardliner who had pushed for a forceful response to Iran’s early Sunday attack, tweeted the single word “lame!”

A Channel 12 report claimed officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle slammed Ben Gvir for damaging Israel’s national security, saying the far-right minister “was and remains childish and irrelevant to any discussion.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid also slammed Ben Gvir.

“Never has a cabinet minister so badly hurt the country’s security, image and international standing,” wrote Lapid on X. “In an unforgivable, one-word tweet Ben Gvir managed to make Israel into a laughing stock, disgracing it from Tehran to Washington.”

The Israeli response was thought to have been tempered by international pressure to make sure that the reply did not further escalate tensions.

Israel has for years operated under a strategy of plausible deniability regarding its attacks on Iranian interests in Syria, declining to take responsibility or speak publicly about specific sorties and giving Iran and its proxies an out to avoid retaliation.

The strategy has limits though. Israel has not taken responsibility for a strike on Iran’s embassy in Damascus on April 1 that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, including a top officer. Nonetheless, Iran responded Sunday night by lobbing over 300 cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Nearly the whole barrage was shot down by Israel, with help from the US, UK, France and Jordan. A small Israeli girl who was the only victim in the attack was badly injured by falling shrapnel; the targeted Nevatim air base also suffered light damage, according to Israeli officials.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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