Iran launches unprecedented retaliatory strikes on Israel in major escalation of widening conflict

Iran launched an unprecedented large-scale drone and missile attack at Israel on Saturday night, in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic complex in Syria, bringing the long-running shadow war between the two sides into the open and raising the prospect of full-blown regional conflict.

More than 300 projectiles – including around 170 drones and over 120 ballistic missiles – were fired toward Israel in an immense aerial attack overnight, but “99%” of them were intercepted by Israel’s aerial defense systems and its “partners,” according to the Israeli military.

The reprisals marked the first time the Islamic Republic has launched a direct assault on Israel from its soil, marking a dangerous new inflection point in the fast widening Middle East conflict.

Iran has warned that it will respond with “stronger and more resolute” actions if Israel retaliates over this weekend’s strikes, according to Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In a phone call with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, US President Joe Biden made clear the US would not participate in any offensive operations against Iran – as he reaffirmed “America’s ironclad commitment to the security of Israel,” a senior White House official told CNN.

Biden told Netanyahu he should consider the events of Saturday night a “win” as Iran’s attacks had been largely unsuccessful, and instead demonstrated Israel’s “remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks.”

The US assessed that almost all of the drones and missiles – including more than 100 ballistic missiles – launched by Iran had been knocked out of the sky. No cruise missile made impact and nothing of “value” was hit, according to the administration official.

There have been no reports of injuries suffered directly through Iranian strikes, according to Israel’s emergency service, though it said a 7-year-old girl had been severely injured by shrapnel from Israel’s interceptor missile.

As news of the attack broke, public shelters were opened in the northern Israeli city of Haifa and large public gatherings banned. Israel closed its airspace, as did nearby Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. By Sunday morning both Israel and Jordan reopened their airspace.

CNN’s team in Jerusalem could hear explosions and sirens as apparent intercepts took place early Sunday morning local time.

“We are continuing to see multiple intercepts in the skies above me coming from multiple different directions. It’s hard to tell what is an incoming missile and what is an intercept,” CNN’s Nic Robertson reported.

“I’m hearing multiple, multiple detonations, again of what sound like interceptions. I am not hearing the sound of impacts,” he said, adding that his team had already witnessed dozens of apparent intercepts.

By early morning Sunday local time, Iran’s mission to the United Nations announced that the attack was now “deemed concluded” – but warned of potential future escalation.

Separately, more than 55 rockets were fired from Lebanon to Israel on early morning Sunday local time, according to the Israeli military.

The skyline of Tel Aviv, Israel, as seen on April 13, 2024. - CNN
The skyline of Tel Aviv, Israel, as seen on April 13, 2024. - CNN

The onslaught against Israel prompted Biden to hold a lengthy meeting with his national security team on Saturday night to assess the situation, according to a US official.

Biden will also meet with G7 leaders on Sunday “to coordinate a united diplomatic response to Iran’s brazen attack,” according to a statement released by the White House.

US defensive assets moved to the region earlier this week and “helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles,” according to the statement.

US forces intercepted more than 70 one-way attack drones and at least 3 ballistic missiles Iran fired toward Israel, according to two US official familiar with the situation.

The ballistic missiles were intercepted by warships in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, one of the officials said. The US Navy currently has two destroyers in that area, both are guided missile destroyers capable of intercepting missile and drone launches.

US fighter jets were also part of the US’ response to Iran’s attack on Saturday and shot down drones launched towards Israel, another US official told CNN.

Israeli air defenses intercept some Iranian strikes over Jerusalem early Sunday, local time. - CNN
Israeli air defenses intercept some Iranian strikes over Jerusalem early Sunday, local time. - CNN

Retaliation for strike on embassy complex

Fears that Israel’s war in Gaza could spiral into a wider regional conflict have been been rising since Iran accused Israel of bombing its diplomatic complex in Syria earlier this month.

The airstrike destroyed the consulate building in the capital Damascus, killing at least seven officials including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and senior commander Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, Iran’s foreign ministry said at the time.

Zahedi, a former commander of the IRGC’s ground forces, air force, and the deputy commander of its operations, was the most high-profile Iranian target killed since then-US President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of IRGC Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Israel would be punished for the attack, while President Ebrahim Raisi said it would “not go unanswered,” state news agency IRNA reported. The Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said the strike would be met with “punishment and revenge.”

Israel has not publicly acknowledged responsibility for the strike but said it believed the building struck was a “military building of Quds forces” — a unit of the IRGC responsible for foreign operations.

Shortly after the launch of the drones on Saturday night, Iran’s Defense Minister, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, warned that any country that allows Israel to use its airspace or territory for attacking Iran would face a “decisive response.”

How the world reacted

In a statement released on Telegram, Iran’s Foreign Ministry claimed the attack showed Iran’s “responsible approach to regional and international peace and security at a time [of] illegal and genocidal actions by the Zionist apartheid regime against the Palestinian people.”

However, a host of countries from the Middle East to Europe and Latin America voiced concerns over the possibility for escalation, many of them condemning Iran’s actions.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, saying he was “deeply alarmed about the very real danger of a devastating region-wide escalation.” Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt voiced similar concerns, with Egypt saying it was in contact with “all concerned parties to try to contain the situation.”

Various European countries condemned the attack and expressed support for Israel, with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, describing it on X as “an unprecedented escalation and a grave threat to regional security.”

The UK and France both reiterated their commitments to Israel’s security, with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying Iran had “once again demonstrated that it is intent on sowing chaos in its own backyard.”

The Netherlands, Austria and the Czech Republic also condemned the attack and expressed support for Israel, while Spain and Portugal called for de-escalation.

China has also expressed “deep concern” over the escalation, calling on “relevant parties to exercise calm and restraint to prevent further escalations.” It called the attack a “spillover of the Gaza conflict” and urged an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Over the past months, American officials have urged Beijing to use its leverage over Iran to help prevent a regionwide conflict. China has been Iran’s biggest trading partner for the past decade and buys 90% of Iran’s oil exports.

In Latin America, Chile and Mexico both condemned the use of force, while Argentina’s President Javier Milei cut short a trip to Denmark to fly back to his country and form a crisis committee. His spokesperson Manuel Adorni said the meeting was to “take charge of the situation and coordinate actions with the presidents of the Western world.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

CNN’s Paul Murphy contributed to this reporting.

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