Israel Planned Bigger Attack on Iran, but Scaled It Back to Avoid War

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

Israeli leaders originally discussed bombarding several military targets across Iran last week, including near Tehran, the Iranian capital, in retaliation for the Iranian strike on April 13, said the officials, who spoke on the discussion of anonymity to describe the sensitive discussions.

Such a broad and damaging attack would have been far harder for Iran to overlook, increasing the chances of a forceful Iranian counterattack that could have brought the Middle East to the brink of a major regional conflict.

In the end — 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 strike on Friday that avoided significant damage, diminishing the likelihood of an escalation, at least for now.

Still, in the view of 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 from aircraft positioned several hundred miles west of it on Friday, according to the Israeli officials and two senior Western officials briefed on the attack. Israel also sent small attack drones, known as quadcopters, to confuse Iranian air defenses, according to the Israeli officials.

Military facilities in Iran have been attacked by such drones several times in recent years, and on several occasions Iran has said it did not know who the drones belonged to — a claim interpreted as Iranian reluctance to respond.

One missile on Friday hit an antiaircraft battery in a strategically important part of central Iran, while another exploded in midair, the officials said. One Israeli official said that 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. One Western official said it was possible the missile had simply malfunctioned.

The officials said Israel’s intention was to allow Iran to move on without responding in kind, while signaling that Israel had developed the ability to strike Iran without entering its airspace or even setting off its air defense batteries. Israel also hoped to show that it could hit those batteries in a part of central Iran that houses several major nuclear facilities, including an uranium enrichment site at Natanz, hinting that it could have also reached those facilities if it had tried.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

The path to this attack began on April 1, when Israel struck an Iranian embassy complex in Damascus, Syria, killing seven Iranian officials, including three senior military leaders. Iran had not retaliated after several similar strikes in the past, leading Israeli officials, they say, to believe that they could continue to mount 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 a limit, and that it would respond with a major strike on Israel — its first ever direct attack on Israeli soil.

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

The first was a defensive operation to block the expected Iranian attack, coordinated with the U.S. Central Command — its top commander, Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, visited Israel that week — as well as with the British, French and Jordanian militaries.

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

Israel’s military and political leaders began discussing a counterstrike that could begin as soon as Iran began firing the drones — even before it was known how much damage, if any, they caused. According to one official, the plan was presented to Israel’s war cabinet by the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and his Air Force chief, Tomer Bar, early on Friday, April 12 — two days before Iran’s attack.

Israel’s intentions changed after Iran attacked, the officials said. The attack was even bigger than expected: With more than 100 ballistic missiles, 170 drones and some 30 cruise missiles, it was one of the largest barrages of this kind in military history.

But Israel’s defense, which were coordinated with pilots from the United States, Britain, France and Jordan, took down most of the missiles and drones, and there was only limited damage on the ground, reducing the need for a swift response. And there were questions about whether Israel should risk taking its focus off 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 Mr. Biden, during which the American president encouraged the Israeli leader to treat the successful defense as a victory that required no further response, according to three Israeli and Western officials, who described those discussions on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Netanyahu emerged from the call opposed to an immediate retaliation, the Israelis said.

The following day, the Israeli government began signaling to foreign allies that it still planned to respond, but only in a contained way that fell far short of what it had previously planned, according to one of the senior Western officials.

Instead of a broad counterattack that might leave Iran’s leaders believing they had no option but to respond in kind, Israeli officials said, they settled on a plan that they hoped would make a point to Iranian officials without publicly humiliating them.

They initially planned the attack for Monday night, the Israeli officials said, pulling out at the last minute amid fears that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia that has been engaged in a low-level conflict with Israel since October, might significantly increase the intensity of its strikes on northern Israel.

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

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

Officials in Tehran also largely avoided blaming Israel for the assault. That, coupled with Israel’s own decision not to claim responsibility for it, helped to reduce the risk of an escalation.

Eric Schmitt and Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.

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