Israel planned a larger attack on Iran, but scaled it back to avoid war

Israel abandoned plans for a much larger counterattack against Iran after concerted diplomatic pressure from the United States and other foreign allies and because the brunt of an Iranian attack on Israeli soil had been thwarted, according to three senior Israeli officials.

Israeli leaders had initially discussed bombing several military targets across Iran last week, including near Tehran, the Iranian capital, in retaliation for Iran's April 13 attack, said the officials, who spoke of the discussion in anonymity to describe the delicate discussions.

Such a large and damaging attack would have been much harder for Iran to ignore, increasing the chances of a strong Iranian counterattack that could have brought the Middle East to the brink of a major regional conflict.

Ultimately – after President Biden, along with the British and German foreign ministers, urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prevent a wider war – Israel opted for a more limited attack on Friday that avoided significant damage, decreasing the likelihood of an escalation, globally. at least for now.

However, according to Israeli officials, the attack showed Iran the breadth and sophistication of Israel's military arsenal.

Instead of sending fighter jets into Iranian airspace, Israel fired a small number of missiles Friday from planes positioned several hundred miles west of it, according to Israeli officials and two senior Western officials briefed on the attack. Israel has also sent small attack drones, known as quadcopters, to confuse Iranian air defenses, according to Israeli officials.

Military facilities in Iran have been attacked by such drones several times in recent years, and on several occasions Iran has claimed that it did not know who owned the drones – a statement interpreted as Iranian reluctance to respond.

A missile hit an anti-aircraft battery in a strategically important area of ​​central Iran on Friday, while another exploded in mid-air, officials said. An Israeli official said the Israeli Air Force intentionally destroyed the second missile once it became clear that the first had reached its target, to avoid causing too much damage. A Western official said it was possible the missile simply malfunctioned.

Officials said Israel's intention was to allow Iran to move forward without responding in kind, while signaling that Israel had developed the capability to strike Iran without entering its airspace or even detonating its air defense batteries. Israel also hoped to demonstrate that it could hit those batteries in a part of central Iran that is home to several major nuclear facilities, including a uranium enrichment site at Natanz, suggesting it could reach those facilities too if it tried.

The Israeli army declined to comment.

The path to this attack began on April 1, when Israel struck the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, killing seven Iranian officials, including three senior military leaders. Iran had failed to retaliate after several similar attacks in the past, leading Israeli officials, they say, to believe they could continue to stage such attacks without drawing a significant Iranian response.

This time proved different: Within a week, Iran began privately signaling to neighbors and foreign diplomats that its patience had reached its limit and that it would respond with a major attack on Israel – its first directed absolutely on Israeli soil.

According to Israeli officials, during the week of April 8, Israel began preparing two major military responses.

The first was a defensive operation to block the expected Iranian attack, coordinated with the United States Central Command – its commander in chief, General Michael E. Kurilla, visited Israel that week – as well as with the British, French and Jordanian.

The second was a huge offensive operation to be carried out if the Iranian attack materialized. Initially, Israeli intelligence believed Iran planned to attack with a “swarm” of large drones and up to 10 ballistic missiles, Israeli officials said. As the week progressed, that estimate grew to 60 missiles, increasing Israel's desire for a strong counterattack.

Israel's military and political leaders began discussing a counterattack that could begin as soon as Iran began launching the drones, even before it was known how much damage, if any, they would cause. According to an official, the plan was presented to the Israeli war cabinet by the military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, and its air force chief, Tomer Bar, in the early hours of Friday, April 12, two days before the Iranian attack.

Israel's intentions changed after Iran's attack, officials said. The attack was even larger than expected: with more than 100 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and around 30 cruise missiles, it was one of the largest barrages of its kind in military history.

But Israeli defense forces, coordinated with pilots from the United States, Britain, France and Jordan, shot down most of the missiles and drones, and damage on the ground was limited, reducing the need for a rapid response. And there were questions about whether Israel should risk diverting attention from defense while the assault was still underway. two officials said.

The turning point, however, was an early morning phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Biden, during which the American president encouraged the Israeli leader to view the successful defense as a victory that required no further response, according to three Israeli and officials Westerners, who described those discussions on condition of anonymity. Since the appeal, Netanyahu has resisted immediate retaliation, the Israelis said.

The next day, the Israeli government began signaling to foreign allies that it still intended to respond, but only in a restrained way, much smaller than it had previously planned, according to one of the senior Western officials.

Instead of a broad counterattack that might have made Iranian leaders believe they had no choice but to respond in kind, Israeli officials said they opted for a plan that they hoped would make inroads with Iranian officials without humiliating them publicly.

They had initially planned the attack for Monday night, Israeli officials said, withdrawing at the last minute over fears that Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia that has been engaged in a low-level conflict with Israel since October, could significantly increase the attack. 'attack. intensity of its attacks on northern Israel.

Foreign officials continued, unsuccessfully, to encourage Israel not to respond at all, then signaled their willingness to accept an Israeli strike that left Iran with the option of moving forward without losing face, according to an Israeli and a Western official .

After Israel finally carried out its strike early Friday morning, Iranian officials did exactly that, focusing on small drones rather than missiles and ignoring their impact.

Officials in Tehran have also largely avoided blaming Israel for the assault. This, combined with Israel's decision not to claim responsibility, helped reduce the risk of escalation.

Eric Schmitt AND Farnaz Fassihi contributed to the reporting.

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