AnalysisIsrael keeps its eye on the bigger picture

With mild reported strike, Israel aims to bolster coalition to tackle Iran nuke threat

Attack at Isfahan sends warning to Iran, seeks to avoid escalation, reflects US calls for strategic thinking, keeps intact the alliance that helped defend Israel on Saturday

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

In this March 30, 2005 file photo, an Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through part of the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
In this March 30, 2005 file photo, an Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through part of the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

The United States had implored Israel to think carefully and strategically when weighing a response to the hundreds of missiles and drones Iran launched at Israel overnight Saturday-Sunday.

Amid the limited reliable information emerging Friday about Israel’s reported retaliation, insistent official silence in Jerusalem, and the military censor’s requirement that any allegation and detailing of an Israeli retaliatory strike be attributed to overseas media reports, it appeared that the government had indeed taken that advice to heart.

After days of protracted war cabinet discussions, visits by foreign leaders urging caution, and innumerable consultations with the United States, it would appear that the reported Israeli response was far more symbolic than damaging — designed to send messages, preserve alliances, avoid any further escalation in the short term, and keep a focus on the strategic, indeed existential, imperative of ensuring that the regime in Iran does not attain a nuclear weapons capability.

The response also appears to have been designed with a greater government awareness than in recent months of the central importance of Israel’s relationship with the United States — and specifically with a Biden administration that rallied to Israel’s defense on Saturday night, that is maintaining the vital flow of military assistance for the war against Hamas and other defense needs, and that a very few hours before the reported Israeli strike single-handedly prevented UN recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The symbolism of the reported Israeli strike was unmistakable: Five days after the sole Israeli military target hit by Iran’s direct onslaught was the Nevatim Air Force Base, which sustained minor damage, Israel is said to have targeted an Iranian military base at Isfahan. According to the former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, the base in question is a kind of Iranian “equivalent to Nevatim” — an air base, used by combat aircraft and military transport planes, likely with air defense systems.

It is also, Yadlin noted in a television interview, close to a major Iranian nuclear facility for uranium enrichment. Several other military facilities are also located in the area.

File: Iranian students form a human chain outside the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility during a protest in the city in support of Iran’s nuclear program and against military threats by Israel on November 15, 2011. (AFP photo)

In terms of practical consequence, the reported Israeli response, then, was apparently no remote parallel to Iran’s attack, which would have caused devastation were it not for the combination of US-led coalition forces and Israel’s multiple layers of air defense. According to those foreign reports we have to cite, it was also not launched directly from Israel but rather carried out by a few drones launched from inside Iran.

Israel, the message of the Isfahan mini-strike would appear to say, not only knows a great deal about Iran’s nuclear sites but can target them at will

The choice of the Isfahan location would seem to constitute an obvious counter to the kind of threats issued by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ nuclear commander, Ahmad Haghtalab, who warned on Thursday that Iran might revise its nuclear doctrine were Israel to strike its nuclear facilities, and asserted that Iran had all the intelligence and capacities it needs to target Israel’s nuclear capacities. Israel, the message of the Isfahan mini-strike would appear to say, not only knows a great deal about Iran’s nuclear sites but can target them at will, including with attacks launched from inside Iran’s own territory.

According to Yadlin, the overall goal was to convey to the Iranians, “Pay attention; you are vulnerable.”

The official silence in Jerusalem gives Iran the potential to refrain from the “massive” response it has been promising to even the tiniest Israeli retaliation. Initially, at least, Iran would appear to be inclining in that direction. After a very few hours of apparent initial domestic chaos, Iran reopened its airports, clarified that it had not come under missile attack, declared its air defense had thwarted a drone attack, and asserted that no damage had been caused. A senior official was quoted saying there was no sign of an external attack and no immediate plan for retaliation against Israel.

That could change in the coming hours and days, of course. But Israel, too, apparently sees no immediate danger of escalation, with no change to the current business-as-usual Home Front command regulations.

People cross a road along the beach in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2024, hours after a reported Israeli attack in Iran. (Jack Guez / AFP)

Characteristically, the only Israeli minister to have alluded to the reported Israeli strike as of this writing was the reliably irresponsible far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who after Saturday night’s Iranian onslaught demanded that Israel “go crazy” in response. He tweeted a single word on Friday morning, best translated as “lame.”

If Ben Gvir was indeed referring to the reported Israeli retaliation, lame it certainly was, as far as we know right now, by comparison to Iran’s unprecedented direct assault on Israel.

But that assault was almost completely thwarted by a US-led coalition of European and regional states acting together with Israel in remarkable coordination and effectiveness, after years of joint training.

Iran’s assault reminded the international community of the dangers posed by the regime — not only to Israel, directly and via its proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and beyond, but to the entire international community.

And it underlined the devastating threat posed to the entire international community by this rapacious Islamic extremist regime in Tehran on its march to nuclear weapons.

The days since Iran’s attack have seen international movement toward intensified sanctions against Tehran, and toward the wider recognition of the IRGC as a terrorist organization — positive steps, though hardly likely to have the ayatollahs quaking. But Saturday night’s assault on Israel reminded the international community of how unthinkable an Islamic Republic with nuclear warheads atop those ballistic missiles would be, and just possibly will see the US-led international coalition working more assiduously to tackle the threat.

The danger of escalation has not passed. Indeed, fighting across the northern border has intensified over the past week, with Hezbollah stepping up its attacks, and Israel responding. (A single Hezbollah drone strike on Wednesday, which injured 18 people, several of them seriously, underlined the vast harm those Iranian projectiles would have caused were it not for the array of defenses.) Israel also hit targets in Syria overnight. Iran could yet choose to hit back at Israel indirectly, or at Israeli or Israeli-linked targets overseas. Again, these are the initial hours after yet another development in the endlessly fraught post-October 7 reality.

An Iranian Shiite Muslim cleric raises a placard during an anti-Israel demonstration after the Friday noon prayer in Tehran on April 19, 2024. (Atta KENARE / AFP)

But by striking back at Iran in the way it reportedly did, Jerusalem apparently sought to underline the message that Tehran is vulnerable, and to respond to Saturday night without prompting wider conflict and without alienating the new coalition, the better to galvanize international support for tackling the paramount Iranian nuclear threat.

In recent years, it has often seemed as though Israel was destined to have to try alone to thwart the ayatollahs’ march to the bomb. After Saturday night, that may no longer be the case. And what Israel did or didn’t do in the past few hours was evidently designed to maintain the possibility of concerted action.

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