Israel’s Iran Attack Carefully Calibrated after Internal Splits, US Pressure

People shop at a bazaar in Iran's central city of Isfahan on April 19, 2024. (IRNA/AFP)
People shop at a bazaar in Iran's central city of Isfahan on April 19, 2024. (IRNA/AFP)
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Israel’s Iran Attack Carefully Calibrated after Internal Splits, US Pressure

People shop at a bazaar in Iran's central city of Isfahan on April 19, 2024. (IRNA/AFP)
People shop at a bazaar in Iran's central city of Isfahan on April 19, 2024. (IRNA/AFP)

Israel's apparent strike on Iran after days of prevarication was small and appeared calibrated to dial back risks of a major war, even if the sheer fact it happened at all shattered a taboo of direct attacks that Tehran broke days earlier.

Netanyahu's war cabinet had initially approved plans for a strike on Monday night inside Iranian territory to respond forcefully to last Saturday's missile and drones from Iran, but held back at the last-minute, three sources with knowledge of the situation said.

By then, the sources said, the three voting members of the war cabinet had already ruled out the most drastic response - a strike on strategic sites including Iran's nuclear facilities whose destruction would almost certainly provoke a wider regional conflict.

Facing cabinet divisions and strong warnings from partners including the United States not to escalate, and aware of the need to keep international opinion on Israel's side, the plans to hit back were then postponed twice, the sources said. Two war cabinet meetings were also delayed twice, government officials said.

Netanyahu's office did not respond to requests for comment for this Reuters story. Before the attack, a spokesperson for the government's National Public Diplomacy Directorate cited Netanyahu as saying Israel would defend itself in whatever way it judged appropriate.

Reuters spoke to a dozen sources in Israel, Iran and the United States, who described six frantic days of efforts to limit the response to Iran's first ever direct attack on its arch rival after decades of shadow war.

Most of the sources asked not to be named to speak about sensitive matters.

The eventual strike on Friday appeared to target an Iranian Air Force base near the city of Isfahan, deep inside the country and close enough to nuclear facilities to send a message of Israel's reach but without using airplanes, ballistic missiles, striking any strategic sites or causing major damage.

Iran said its defense systems shot down three drones over a base near Isfahan early on Friday. Israel said nothing about the incident. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had not been involved in any offensive operations,

An Iranian official told Reuters there were signs the drones were launched from within Iran by "infiltrators," which could obviate the need for retaliation.

A source familiar with western intelligence assessments of the incident also said initial evidence suggested Israel launched drones from inside Iranian territory. Iran's foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

"Israel tried to calibrate between the need to respond and a desire not to enter into a cycle of action and counter reaction that would just escalate endlessly," said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

He described the situation as a dance, with both parties signaling to each other their intentions and next steps.

"There is huge relief across the Gulf region. It looks like the attack was limited and proportionate and caused limited damage. I see it a de-esclation," veteran Saudi analyst Abdelrahman al-Rashed told Reuters.

BIDEN CALL

The decision to hold back from broader and immediate action this week underlined the competing pressures on Netanyahu's government in the aftermath of the more than 300 drones and ballistic and cruise missiles fired by Iran on Saturday night.

As Iran's barrage unfolded, two members of the war cabinet, Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, both former armed forces commanders, wanted to respond straight away before agreeing to hold off following a call with US President Joe Biden and in the face of differing views from other ministers, two Israeli officials with knowledge of the situation said.

A spokesman for Gantz, a centrist who joined Netanyahu's emergency government following the Hamas-led attack on Israel last October, did not respond to a request for comment.

The US State Department declined to comment to questions about Israel's decision-making. Washington was working to de-escalate tensions, Blinken said on Friday. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Aryeh Deri, the head of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu's coalition, who has observer status in the war cabinet and who has generally been wary of drastic moves, was firmly opposed to an immediate strike against Iran, which he believed could endanger the people of Israel given the risk of escalation, a spokesperson for his party said.

"We should also be listening to our partners, to our friends in the world. I say this clearly: I see no shame or weakness in doing so," Deri told the "Haderech" newspaper.

Israel's options ranged from strikes on strategic Iranian facilities, including nuclear sites or Revolutionary Guards bases, to covert operations, targeted assassinations and cyber-attacks on strategic industrial plants and nuclear facilities, analysts and former officials in Israel have said.

By Thursday, four diplomatic and government sources in the region were expressing confidence that the response would be limited and proportionate.

Ahead of the overnight Israeli strike, one regional source, who had been briefed on Israel's thinking, said the response would aim to minimize or completely avoid casualties and was likely to target a military base.

Iranian officials had warned a major Israeli attack would trigger immediate retaliation.

Iran's options to respond included shutting down the Strait of Hormuz through which about a fifth of the world's oil passes, urging proxies to hit Israeli or US interests, and deploying previously unused missiles, a senior Iranian official said.

While satisfying Israel's moderates at home, its neighbors and international partners, the measured strike, when it came, was met with dismay from hardliners in Netanyahu's cabinet.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, whose ultranationalist party is a key prop in Netanyahu's coalition, posted a single word on X, “Feeble."



What Are the Implications of the Visit by 4 Arab Leaders to China?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
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What Are the Implications of the Visit by 4 Arab Leaders to China?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)

The leaders of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Tunisia are conducting a visit to China this week to attend the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing announced on Monday.

From Tuesday to Saturday, the presidents will “pay state visits to China and attend the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, diplomats and experts in Chinese affairs said the participation of Arab heads of state was aimed at conveying a message about efforts to strengthen relations with China, which in return is seeking to engage more in political affairs related to the Middle East.

According to the Chinese statement, the Arab delegation includes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Tunisian President Kais Saied and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

During a press conference, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Deng Li said China’s President Xi Jinping will attend the Forum and deliver a speech on Thursday, adding that he will hold separate talks with the four Arab leaders to discuss bilateral relations and exchange views on regional and international issues of common interest.

Former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister Ambassador Ezzat Saad told Asharq Al-Awsat that Chinese-Arab relations have witnessed a boom in recent years, specifically since Xi came to power in 2013.

“There are about 12 Arab countries that currently maintain comprehensive strategic partnership relations with China,” he said, noting that Chinese investments in Arab countries almost reached $250 billion dollars, while the volume of Chinese trade with Arab countries is close to half a trillion dollars.

He interpreted the high-level Arab participation as “a message to the West, reflecting the development of Arab relations with eastern powers, such as China and Russia, in light of those countries’ respect for the United Nations Charter and the rights of peoples to self-determination and non-interference in the affairs of others, in contrast to existing Western double-standard policy.”

Asian affairs expert at the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs Diaa Helmy said China is interested in the region, demonstrated in its involvement in political issues and its effort to create “global balances”, in wake of the war on Gaza and the possibility of its spillover into the region and impacting international trade.

China is interested in joining the mediation efforts and help in taking just and urgent decisions to preserve peace and security in the Middle East, he added, noting China’s balanced position towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its support of legitimate Arab rights.