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How Israel could strike Iran, from cyber attacks to assassinations

The two states have been involved in a shadow war for decades, with Tehran funding terrorist groups around Israel and the latter responding with covert attacks

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For days, Iran was bracing for an Israeli retaliation.

On Thursday night, long-distance aircraft fired missiles on an Iranian airforce base, breaking the lull in the Islamic Republic’s Isfahan city, Israeli media reported. Two Israeli officials reportedly confirmed the country’s involvement in the attack.

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Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the U.S. told members of the G7 that it received “last minute” information from Israel about a drone strike in Iran, but added that the U.S. did not participate in the offensive.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to comment on the assertion, but emphasized that the U.S. was not involved in any attack and was committed to working for a “de-escalation” in the region.

According to Iranian state-run media, three explosions were heard near Isfahan airport, but later on, they said Tehran’s air defence system intercepted three drones in the sky.

Iranian media downplayed the attack, broadcasting live footage from the enclave where the explosions were initially heard. Some analysts are hopeful that this response and the fact that there was no significant damage or casualties makes it likely that the hardliner Islamist officials in Tehran won’t retaliate against Israel, despite their threats last week.

Israel’s attack was in response to Tehran’s barrage of over 300 armed drones and ballistic missiles toward Israel last weekend that was intercepted in the sky by Israel’s modernized air-defence systems, but also thanks to the U.S., U.K. and the Jordanian Kingdom. Israel announced that 99 per cent of drones and missiles were intercepted and only around a dozen were injured.

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It was the first attack on Israel from Iranian soil, after decades of shadow war between the two countries. The attack was widely condemned by world leaders who followed up with sanctions on Iran’s oil industry.

“The Iranians failed in their attack, and they will fail to deter Israel,” said Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Tuesday. “The skies of the Middle East are wide open for the (Israeli) air force. Every enemy that comes after us will be struck wherever they are.”

Iranian's protest against Israel.
Iranian’s wave the flags of Palestine and Iran they gather during an anti-Israel demonstration after the Friday noon prayer in Tehran on April 19, 2024. Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Iran said the attack was in response to an airstrike by Israel earlier this month that targeted Tehran’s embassy in Damascus, Syria, that killed several Iranian military officials, including a top general of IRGC, Iran’s foreign wing that sponsors its proxies and militias in the Middle East.

The hardliner Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader called it an attack on Iranian soil and vowed retaliation.

So far, Iran’s response to Israel’s latest attack has been muted and, for now, has not sparked further escalation by Tehran. Still, the situation is unpredictable.

“The way they present it to their own people, and the fact that the skies are open already, allows them to decide not to respond,” Sima Shine, a former head of research for the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, and an Iran expert, told The New York Times.

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But, she added, “We have made so many evaluation mistakes that I am very hesitant to say it definitively.”

The two states have been involved in a shadow war for decades, with Tehran funding terrorist groups around Israel and the latter responding with often covert attacks.

From cyber attacks, to the assassination of Iranian atomic scientists and top military officials by Israel, there are other ways that the nation could respond to another attack from Iran. Here are some of the options experts say Israel could be considering.

Cyber Attack

For years, the two countries in the Middle East targeted each other’s military and intelligence sites in cyber attacks. The best known, from Israel’s side, was Stuxnet — reportedly developed jointly by the U.S. and Israel — that struck the computer system of the Natanz nuclear site, an underground facility in central Iran. The New York Times reported that at least 1,000 of 5,000 centrifuges were temporarily destroyed.

Given the history of a successful cyber war against Iran, Israel could launch a massive cyber war, targeting nuclear sites inside Iran, missiles and drone production systems, and the bases the Islamic Republic used to fire its missiles and drones last weekend.

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“Israel has a pretty difficult decision to make,” said Alex Wilner, professor at Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. “It’s a very complex situation.”

“Cyber attacks are a likely option,” Wilner told National Post. “Those could be done covertly or overtly, and they can target IRGC communication, leadership nodes, Iranian infrastructure, and so forth. The risk there, of course, is that cyber attacks aren’t at the same level, I would say, as the Iranian attack itself.”

Direct Attack on Iran from Israel soil

The riskiest option for Israel — and the region — is a military counter-offensive like the one that Tehran launched.

“If there is a military confrontation with Iran, Israel would use advanced missile systems, advanced aircraft,” Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told National Post. “It has very good intelligence collection. It has a range of drone systems that are quite effective, it could try to electronically jam Iranian air defences.”

Israel has high military capabilities and a modern warfare system. It could deploy its Jericho ballistic missiles for the first time, with ranges from 1,500 kilometres to 3,500 kilometres. Israel also has the most sophisticated American-made fighter jets, the F-15 and F-35, could be used in long-range operations.

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Israel could also strike specific targets inside Iran directly from Israel with Hermes drones — some of the most sophisticated in the world.

Israel could target bases where Iran launched its drone and ballistic missiles and the military facilities where Iran has been building its missiles and drones.

Covert attacks

Over the years, Israel is believed to have conducted several successful covert attacks inside and outside Iran, involving the Tehran’s prominent nuclear scientists, military officials and other sensitive sites.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, regarded as the mastermind of Iran’s atomic program, was assassinated near Tehran in 2020, reportedly by an AI-assisted remote-controlled machine gun operated by the Israeli government’s foreign spy agency, the Mossad.

Over the years, the Mossad’s operations inside Iran have also brought damage to the country’s nuclear sites and military bases. It also targeted senior military officials of Iran’s IRGC in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

“Israel could continue, and perhaps increase its rate of assassination of IRGC and Iranian leaders…. They could do that, of course, in Yemen, or Iran, or in areas where Iranian proxies function,” said Wilner. 

Diplomatic campaign

Israel, in addition to its European allies, has courted several countries in the Arab world. Israel could step up its diplomatic efforts to further isolate Iran, adding another harsh layer to economic sanctions being imposed by the U.S. and European Union.

“This only matters if powerful economies do it,” said Byman. “It has to be the United States, European countries and others. That’s where the focus would be.”

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