Austin chides Gallant for lack of warning on Damascus strike

US intel said to indicate Iran could strike ‘Israeli soil’ in next 24 to 48 hours

WSJ also quotes Iranian official as saying Khamenei yet to decide on plans, fearing Israel will intercept missiles and respond with major strike on Iran’s strategic infrastructure

A handout picture provided by the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei office shows him speaking during the Eid al-Fitr prayer ceremony in Tehran on April 10, 2024. (KHAMENEI.IR / AFP)
A handout picture provided by the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei office shows him speaking during the Eid al-Fitr prayer ceremony in Tehran on April 10, 2024. (KHAMENEI.IR / AFP)

Iran could launch an attack on Israeli soil within the next 24 to 48 hours, the Wall Street Journal on Friday quoted a US official as saying, citing American intelligence reports.

Israel has been on high alert amid multiple threats and intelligence assessments that Iran would launch a strike on Israeli targets in a bid to avenge the April 1 airstrike on an Iranian consulate building in the Syrian capital of Damascus, which killed several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, including two generals.

Both Tehran and Damascus have blamed Israel for the strike and vowed revenge, although Jerusalem has not commented on the matter.

A US official with knowledge of the matter told WSJ that American intelligence reports now indicate an Iranian retaliatory strike within days, “possibly on Israeli soil” as opposed to Israeli interests elsewhere.

He said the strike could come within the next 24 to 48 hours, and that Israel was preparing for a possible strike on either southern or northern Israel.

However, the same report also quoted a person briefed by the Iranian leadership as saying that no final decision has been taken by Tehran.

Demonstrators hang an effigy of the Israeli prime minister during the funeral for seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members killed in a strike in Syria, which Iran blamed on Israel, in Tehran on April 5, 2024. (Atta Kenare / AFP)

According to the report, quoting an IRGC advisor, earlier in the week, the Guards provided Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with several options to strike Israeli interests.

It said that among the options was a direct attack on Israel with sophisticated medium-range missiles, he said.

Unverified posts on social media in recent days have shown Iranian threats of simulated attacks on targets in Israel including the nuclear facility in Dimona and the small airport in Haifa, which only operates flights to Cyprus.

But Khamenei has yet to decide on the plans. He is concerned a direct attack could backfire with the projectiles being intercepted and Israel responding with a massive retaliation on Iran’s strategic infrastructure, the Journal reported.

File: An Arrow interceptor missile is launched at a target over the Red Sea in October 2023. (Defense Ministry)

“The strike plans are in front of the Supreme Leader and he is still weighing the political risk,” the adviser told the WSJ.

Tensions surrounding a potential Iranian attack on Israel appeared to reach new heights Thursday as the Israeli military said it was fully prepared for an incoming strike and as multiple international actors warned Tehran against a major assault on the Jewish state.

Israel is “on alert and highly prepared for various scenarios, and we are constantly assessing the situation,” IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a press conference.

“We are ready for attack and defense using a variety of capabilities that the IDF has, and also ready with our strategic partners,” he said, referring to the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Michael Kurilla, who arrived in Israel on Thursday morning to hold an assessment with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on the ongoing security challenges in the region.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also spoke with his American counterpart Lloyd Austin overnight Thursday, according to a Pentagon statement that said the latter stressed “ironclad US support for Israel’s defense in the face of growing threats from Iran and its regional proxies.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant outside the Pentagon on March 26, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“Secretary Austin assured Minister Gallant that Israel could count on full US support to defend Israel against Iranian attacks, which Tehran has publicly threatened,” the readout added.

According to Gallant’s office, he told Austin that “A direct Iranian attack will require an appropriate Israeli response against Iran.”

However, the Washinton Post also reported that Austin complained to Gallant that Washington was not notified before the April 1 airstrike.

US officials quoted in the report said Austin’s complaint was based on the fact that the strike increased the risks to American forces in the region.

Also Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked Beijing to use its influence to dissuade Iran from striking Israel, during a call with his Chinese counterpart, according to the US State Department.

Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, also urged the US to take “a constructive role” in the Middle East during the call with Blinken, according to the US statement.

The United States has repeatedly made public appeals for China to do more to address the crisis, including through pressure on Iran, which supports Hamas.

Meanwhile, the United States said it had restricted its employees in Israel and their family members from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba areas amid Iran’s threats “out of an abundance of caution.”

France on Friday also warned its citizens to “imperatively refrain from travel in the coming days to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories,” French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne’s entourage told AFP.

In a statement on X, the French foreign ministry added that relatives of Iran-based diplomats will return to France and that French civil servants are now banned from conducting any missions in Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Apparently seeking to lower the flames, Iranian sources told Reuters Thursday that Tehran has signaled to Washington it will respond in a way that aims to avoid major escalation and it will not act hastily.

Iran’s message to Washington was conveyed by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian during a visit on Sunday to the Gulf Arab state of Oman, which has often acted as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, the sources said.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment. A source familiar with US intelligence was not aware of the message conveyed via Oman but said Iran has “been very clear” that its response to the attack on its Damascus embassy compound would be “controlled” and “non-escalatory” and planned “to use regional proxies to launch a number of attacks on Israel.”

Israeli and US officials across various agencies have been in contact over the last few days to prepare for an attack they believe is imminent, with Kurilla’s visit to the region the latest show of cooperation between the two countries in the face of Iranian threats.

“Our strategic relationship with the US armed forces is strong and tight,” Hagari said to the press,” adding that “an attack from Iranian territory would be clear proof of Iranian intentions to escalate the situation in the Middle East, and to stop hiding behind the proxies.”

The IDF will “know how to operate wherever is needed,” Hagari said, adding that in recent months, it has “upgraded and improved” its attack capabilities.

File: IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari provides a statement related to an IDF operation at the Al-Shifa Hospital complex in Gaza City, March 18, 2024. (Screenshot)

He stressed, however, that even as the defense establishment prepares for what intelligence reports estimate will be an attack launched either by Iran itself or by its regional proxies, the instructions issued to the public have not changed.

“We have a multi-layered [air] defense capability that has proven itself amid the war, with thousands of successful interceptions,” he said. “But the defense is never going to be hermetic,” he continued, adding that civilians should continue to follow the existing and unchanged Home Front Command guidelines and remain vigilant.

“We are braced and ready, on high alert, defensively and offensively,” he added.

While Hagari stressed that there had been no change to Home Front Command instructions, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Thursday evening that the military’s civil defense body had instructed municipalities around the country to prepare for an attack and ensure that public shelters are fit for use, while at the same time stating there was no need for citizens to panic.

There was no official confirmation of the report.

Israeli children play outside of a bomb shelter as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim, in Sderot, southern Israel, more than five months after the October 7 massacre, Friday, March 22, 2024. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Alongside the US, other countries, including France, Germany, the UK and Russia. also urged Iran to act with restraint.

Iran, for its part, claimed on Thursday that the “imperative” to retaliate for the attack on its embassy compound might have been avoided had the UN Security Council condemned the strike.

“Had the UN Security Council condemned the Zionist regime’s reprehensible act of aggression on our diplomatic premises in Damascus and subsequently brought to justice its perpetrators, the imperative for Iran to punish this rogue regime might have been obviated,” Tehran’s mission to the United Nations wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

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