Area targeted said to produce missiles able to hit Israel

Mossad carried out Iran defense facility strike for Israel’s own interests — report

US officials tell NYT drone attack not aimed at stopping weapons exports to Russia; ex-PM Bennett says he intensified Iran strikes after plot to kill Israelis in Turkey, Cyprus

Screen grab from an unverified video circulating on social media said to show explosion at a defense facility in Iran's Isfahan after an alleged drone strike, January 28, 2023. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Screen grab from an unverified video circulating on social media said to show explosion at a defense facility in Iran's Isfahan after an alleged drone strike, January 28, 2023. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The drone attack on a defense facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan was carried out by Israel to protect its own security interests, and not to prevent weapons exports to Russia, according to a New York Times report on Sunday.

The Saturday strike was carried out by the Mossad intelligence agency, according to the newspaper, which cited senior United States intelligence officials.

The report noted that Isfahan is a hub for Tehran’s missile industry, and is where the Shahab medium-range missile — which has a range capable of hitting Israel — is assembled.

Iran has yet to deliver missiles to Russia despite reports since October that it plans to do so, but Tehran has been supplying Shahed-136 suicide drones for the Kremlin’s use in the nearly year-long invasion of Ukraine.

The “kamikaze” drones have been deployed to attack Ukrainian civilian sites and critical infrastructure facilities since September. Some reports have said that the alleged Israeli strike targeted Iran’s drone program.

An Iranian Defense Ministry statement described three drones being launched at the facility on Saturday, with two of them successfully shot down. A third apparently made it through to strike the building, causing “minor damage” to its roof and wounding no one, the ministry said.

A drone is seen in the sky seconds before it fired on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, on October 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

London-based opposition Iranian news outlet Iran International cited eyewitnesses as saying that they saw three or four explosions.

The state-run IRNA news agency later described the drones as “quadcopters equipped with bomblets.” Quadcopters, which get their name from having four rotors, typically operate from short ranges by remote control. Iranian state television later aired footage of debris from the drones, which resembled commercially available quadcopters.

The drones have been used in past attacks inside Iran, such as a June 2021 attack on a centrifuge manufacturing center in Karaj, and a February 2022 attack on a military drone storage and manufacturing facility in Kermanshah — attacks which were also attributed to Israel by several media outlets.

US officials said on Sunday that Washington was not behind the strike.

It was the first alleged Israeli strike inside Iran since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office, and may mark his continuation of the previous government’s policy, which intensified Jerusalem’s attacks inside the Islamic Republic.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett said in an upcoming YouTube video shared with The New York Times that he decided to “create a price tag” and increase activities inside Iran following Tehran’s attempts “to murder Israelis in Cyprus, in Turkey” in 2022.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 23, 2022. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Bennett said that in the wake of the plot, the Revolutionary Guard Corps commander behind the attempted attacks was “eliminated” — a reference to the killing of Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei last May.

Bennett said he refused US President Joe Biden’s request for Jerusalem to notify Washington before such strikes took place.

“There are things you do not want to know about in advance,” Bennett recalled telling Biden.

A Wall Street Journal report which also pointed the finger at Israel for the Isfahan strike noted the timing of the attack came at the same time that talks between Jerusalem and Washington are aimed at finding new ways to counter Tehran’s nuclear program. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in Israel on Monday.

Iran condemned the attack, calling it “cowardly,” and accused Iran’s enemies of trying to sow insecurity in the Islamic Republic.

“This cowardly act was carried out today as part of the efforts made by enemies of the Iranian nation in recent months to make the Islamic Republic insecure,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Sunday at a press conference.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets with his Qatari counterpart in the capital Tehran, on January 29, 2023. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The US recently indicated that it would be taking a more aggressive approach toward Tehran, including on its drone supply program to Russia.

The Biden administration has also signaled that it had abandoned the possibility of reviving a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Trump then instituted a “maximum pressure” sanctions regime, targeting various Iranian sectors, leading Tehran to respond by expanding its nuclear program in violation of the JCPOA.

Iran’s cooperation with Russia in the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the violent crackdown on anti-regime protests that have swept Iran since mid-September, have also played a role in Washington’s more assertive approach.

Last week, Israel and the US kicked off a large-scale joint exercise in Israel and over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, reportedly aimed at showing adversaries, such as Iran, that Washington is not too distracted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats from China to mobilize a large military force.

Netanyahu, who during his last term as premier ordered numerous strikes on Iranian targets in Syria and operations on Iranian soil, has been open about his intention to oppose Tehran’s nuclear aspirations at any cost.

In November, a longtime ally of Netanyahu said in an interview that he believed the prime minister would order a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if the US does not secure a new nuclear deal with Tehran and fails to take action itself in the near future.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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