Iran launches a drone attack on Israel, a major escalation of Middle East conflict : NPR

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on March 1 in Tehran, Iran.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

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Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on March 1 in Tehran, Iran.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

In a major escalation of conflict in the Middle East, Iran launched dozens of drones toward Israel late Saturday night in an attack that was expected to last for hours.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the attack also included missiles.

Iran had vowed to retaliate after an airstrike on an Iranian consulate in Syria earlier this month killed seven Iranian military officials. It is the first time that Iran has launched an attack on Israel from Iranian soil, Israeli officials said.

Saturday’s attack, which was first announced by Israeli officials around 4 p.m. ET, was expected take hours reach Israeli airspace, Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said. Officials said the attack had been staged in multiple waves. Hagari warned Israelis to stay in safe rooms for 10 minutes if sirens in their areas go off, and he said that Israel had turned off GPS capabilities across the country.

In a statement broadcast on Iranian state television, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps described the attack as a “large-scale military operation” against multiple targets inside Israel.

More than 100 drones were launched by Iran, an Israeli military spokesperson told reporters. In response, Israel had positioned tens of aircraft in order to counter the attack and would “do our best to intercept them before they reach Israel,” the spokesperson said.

Current and retired U.S. officials told NPR that Iran’s drones were likely to have fixed targets and may not be redirected in air. Cruise or ballistic missiles would be targeted by Israel’s missile defense system known as the Iron Dome, they said. U.S. intelligence had watched for days as Iran prepared its missiles for an attack, the officials said.

Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group, said that it had staged its own attack by launching dozens of rockets toward an Israeli military base in the occupied Golan Heights early Sunday.

In a Saturday night address to Israelis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country was ready for “any scenario, both defensively and offensively.”

“We have determined a clear principle: Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We will defend ourselves against any threat and will do so level-headedly and with determination,” Netanyahu said.

The launch was also confirmed by the White House, where a spokesperson said President Biden would monitor the attack from the Situation Room alongside top defense and diplomatic officials.

“President Biden has been clear: our support for Israel’s security is ironclad,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. “The United States will stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran.”

The attack on Israel comes four days after Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed retaliation for an April 1 strike on an Iranian consulate in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Iran said the strike killed seven members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals, and it blamed Israel for the attack. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied being behind the attack.

By Saturday, as anticipation had grown over a possible retaliation, Israeli officials warned residents living in communities near Gaza and the Lebanon border to limit the size of gatherings and to work indoors or within reach of a shelter. Schools across Israel were closed through Monday.

“Iran is a terrorist state — the world is seeing this now more than ever,” Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant said Saturday, hours before the launch. “We are determined to defend our citizens against this terrorism, and we know how to respond to it.”

In anticipation of the attack, President Biden had cut short a trip to Delaware in order to return to the White House Saturday. “We are devoted to the defense of Israel. We will support Israel. We will help defend Israel. And Iran will not succeed,” Biden said Friday.

The strike and retaliation represent an escalation of conflict in the region that many officials worldwide had expressed worry about ever since the outbreak of war between Israel and the Gaza-based militant group Hamas on Oct. 7, the day Hamas led an attack on Israel that left some 1,200 people dead.

In a statement released late Saturday, Egypt’s foreign affairs ministry called Iran’s attack a “dangerous escalation” and urged “the exercise of the utmost restraint to spare the region and its people further factors of instability and tension.”

Iran has long supplied Hamas with funds and weapons. The White House has not directly linked Iran to the Oct. 7 attack.

In the six months since Oct. 7, Israel has bombarded Gaza and conducted a devastating ground invasion that has left much of the territory in ruins and more than 33,000 Palestinians dead, according to Palestinian health officials.

The last time Iran launched a similar attack was in 2020, when it fired ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, wounding dozens of U.S. troops, in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

Additional reporting by NPR’s Daniel Estrin and NPR’s Carrie Kahn in Tel Aviv, NPR’s Tom Bowman in Washington, D.C., and NPR’s Jane Arraf in Amman.

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