Reports of retaliatory Israeli strike on Iranian air base


What’s happened: International media reports this morning claim that Israel has attacked an Iranian air force base near the city of Isfahan.

  • Some of the reports claim that the attack was launched using missiles, and that the Isfahan site had been used to launch the UAVs used by Iran to attack Israel last Saturday night.
  • Israel has offered no official comments, while official Iranian media claims that Iranian air defence systems had intercepted a number of UAVs and denies that there has been a strike on Isfahan. The New York Times, however, cites three Iranian sources confirming that the military base had been struck.
  • A US administration official told CNN that Washington had received prior notification of the Israeli attack on Iran. He said that the administration had not expressed an opinion. This is interpreted in Israel as the US neither approving nor trying to prevent such a strike.
  • Meanwhile, the US and UK yesterday announced fresh sanctions against Iran, targeting its UAV and ballistic missile industries.
  • Announcing the UK’s sanctions at the G7 summit in Capri, UK Foreign Secretary Cameron said “at a time of great tension in the Middle East, Iran’s decision to launch hundreds of drones and missiles towards Israel carried with it a serious risk of thousands of civilian casualties and wider escalation for the region. The sanctions announced today alongside the US demonstrate our unequivocal condemnation of Iran’s attack on a sovereign state.”
  • The US Treasury Department added 16 individuals and two entities to its sanctions list, while the UK announced it was sanctioning a further 7 individuals and 6 entities “who have enabled Iran to conduct destabilising regional activity, including its direct attack on Israel.”
  • According to the government, the new sanctions target:
    • Armed Forces General Staff: directs and coordinates Iran’s armed forces.
    • The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy: 1 of Iran’s 2 naval forces.
    • The Khatemolanbia Central Headquarters (KCHQ): responsible for operational command and control of Iran’s armed forces.
    • Major General Gholamali Rashid, Commander KCHQ: responsible for operational command and control of Iran’s armed forces, reports directly to the Supreme Leader.
    • Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, Minister of Defence Armed Forces Logistics: Iran’s Defence Minister, responsible for supporting and equipping the Iranian armed forces.
    • Seid Mir Ahmad Nooshin, Aerospace Industries Organisation (AIO) Director and 4 further individuals related to AIO.

Context: For the past week, Israel has insisted it would respond strongly to Iran’s attack, which included over 300 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones – the first time ever that Iran had attacked Israel directly.

  • Some 99 percent of the projectiles were thwarted thanks to Israel’s missile defence systems, along with the active support of the US, UK, France, and Jordan. Cooperation from other regional states, including Saudi Arabia, has been widely claimed but not officially confirmed.
  • In the week following, Israel’s allies have repeatedly implored Jerusalem to show restraint in its response, to lower the risk of the escalation spilling over into an all-out regional war.
  • An attack of the type being reported in Isfahan would likely meet this criteria, allowing Iran “plausible deniability” and minimising, though not precluding, the likelihood of an Iranian counter-strike.
  • It would present a clear message to Iran that Israel can breach its defences and potentially reach its nuclear weapons programme sites.
  • A key post-October 7th security priority for Israel has been reaffirming its deterrent capacity. In Gaza; in the north, where Hezbollah has launched daily barrages against Israeli communities; and in the wider context of the whole Iranian “Axis of Resistance”, the need has been to reestablish that attacks on Israel have serious consequences.
  • In responding to Iran’s attack, Israel’s dilemma has been to balance demonstrating this deterrent capacity with not alienating the unprecedented coalition which emerged in thwarting the Iranian attack last Saturday: Israel, the US, UK, other European allies, and pragmatic Arab Sunni states also threatened by Iran.
  • In attacking Israel directly, Iran altered the ‘rules of the game’ of its conflict with Israel and shifted from its traditional strategy of attacking through its proxy network.
  • Thus, while US reports earlier in the week suggested that Israel might respond to Iran through attacks on its proxies, a limited attack on Iranian soil might achieve this balance, while not ignoring the new paradigm initiated by Iran.
  • As well as its other military bases, Isfahan is known to house sites devoted to Iran’s nuclear programme, including the underground Natanz enrichment site. CNN quotes Israeli officials confirming that the nuclear programme was not the target of any Israeli strike.
  • Yesterday, Ahmad Haghtalab, the IRGC commander in charge of nuclear security, threatened that any attack on Iran’s nuclear programme would be met with a counter-strike on Israel’s own nuclear sites.
  • The Isfahan air base is known to host some of Iran’s US-made F-14 Tomcats, which date back to the period before the 1979 revolution.
  • The UK has increased sanctions against Iran several times since October 7th – its total number of sanctioned entities now tops 400 – though continues to stop short of designating the IRGC a terrorist organisation. 154 new sanctions designations were made in 2023.
  • Fresh legislation, “Iran (Sanctions) Regulations 2023”, was introduced in December 2023.

Looking ahead: In parallel to calibrating the nature and scale of its response to Iran, in Gaza, the Israeli assessment remains that achieving its war objectives requires an operation in the southern city of Rafah, home to Hamas’s four remaining battalions and over a million refugees