Israel used radar-evading missile to hit S-300 defenses near Natanz nuke site – report

NYT says attack was ‘calibrated’ to show Israel’s capability to dodge Iran’s air defenses, make Tehran ‘think twice’ before another assault; Iran’s FM claims it merely faced ‘toys’

An Iranian military truck carries parts of an 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)
An Iranian military truck carries parts of an 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)

The alleged Israeli strike overnight Thursday-Friday on Iranian air defenses near the Natanz nuclear site used a high-tech missile that was able to evade Iran’s radar systems, in a move “calibrated to make Iran think twice” before launching another direct attack on Israel, The New York Times reported on Saturday.

Two unnamed Western officials cited by the newspaper said the missile aimed to show Tehran that Israel is able to dodge and neutralize its defenses.

Two Iranian officials said the strike hit a Russian-made S-300 air defense system. They told the newspaper that Iran had not detected intrusions into its airspace from drones, missiles or aircraft.

The newspaper said the missile was from a warplane fired “far from Israeli or Iranian airspace.”

The report also said that neither the plane nor the missile entered Jordanian airspace — a calculated move to keep Amman out of any potential ramifications for the reprisal strike, after it helped shoot down some of the hundreds of drones and missiles fired by Iran at Israel last weekend.

Satellite imagery seen by the Times of Israel showed damage to the radar of an S-300 system at the Eighth Shekari Air Base in Isfahan, said to be part of an array defending the nearby top-secret Natanz nuclear site. 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.

The New York Times said the strike was deliberately designed to send a message on how a wider attack could look, with Israel able to penetrate Iranian defenses undetected.

US defense officials also told The New York Times that there was concern the precedent set by the nations’ direct exchanges of blows this week could encourage further rounds of violence in the future.

Other effects could be an Iranian effort to better protect its nuclear assets and make them harder to attack, as well a potential push to move weaponry closer to Israel in case of another confrontation, experts told the paper.

US-made F-35 fighter jets at Nevatim Air Base on November 13, 2022. (IDF)

US media reported Friday that the alleged Israeli strike in Iran went beyond the scope of several small drones described by Tehran. ABC news was the first to report that the air defenses at Isfahan were part of an array defending the nearby top-secret Natanz site.

Citing “senior US military sources,” Fox News reported that the target of the strike was a military base in Isfahan, and 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.

Iran had claimed earlier that three small drones were involved in the attack on Isfahan. Iranian 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.

Israel has not officially commented on the strike.

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, in New York to attend a United Nations Security Council meeting on the Middle East, likened the strike on Friday to child’s play.

Speaking to NBC News through a translator, Amir-Abdollahian said the drones had taken off from inside Iran and flew for a few hundred meters before being downed.

“What happened last night was no attack,” said Amir-Abdollahian. “It was the flight of two or three quad-copters, which are at the level of toys that our children use in Iran.”

However, the reports that Israel had fired at least one missile 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.

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 of unclear funding, said the strike hit a military radar for government forces.

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

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

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.

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 consulate compound in Damascus on April 1 that killed several members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, including a top officer. Nonetheless, Iran responded on April 13-14 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. An 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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