How the U.S. Rallied to Defend Israel From Iran’s Massive Attack

6 minute read

As President Joe Biden and his national security team met in the Situation Room at the White House on Saturday evening, watching in real time as hundreds of Iranian missiles and drones headed towards Israel, they received a message from Tehran. Through the Swiss, who serve as an intermediary since the U.S. and Iran have no diplomatic relations, the Iranians sent word "basically suggesting that they were finished after this," a senior administration official said on Sunday.

It was, to say the least, an incongruous moment. Over the course of five hours on Saturday, Iran launched over 300 munitions, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and UAVs from locations in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, according to the Pentagon. At one “incredibly intense” moment, the President and his national security advisers were monitoring at least 100 Iranian ballistic missiles that were simultaneously in the air a short time from reaching Israel, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

The Iranian message arrived as U.S. forces and regional partners were still assisting Israel in shooting down dozens of missiles and drones, which Iran had launched in retaliation for Israel’s April 1 strike of its consular building in Syria which killed senior Iranian officials. At the time, it was still unclear whether the air attack would cause any significant damage, potentially igniting a wider regional war that the U.S. has been working to head off for months.

But the message also indicated the risks Iran was taking with its attack.

As they monitored the results of the air defenses, aided by U.S., British, French and Jordanian forces, it became clear that Israel would emerge relatively unscathed. “When we knew the preparations and planning had succeeded…there was a bit of a relief,” a senior administration official said. “You can imagine those tense moments.” Around 9 p.m., Biden got on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was sitting with his war cabinet in Tel Aviv, and made it clear that it was the time to “think carefully and strategically" about what comes next, the senior defense official said.

Read More: U.S. Scrambles to Contain Fallout from Israel’s Strikes on Iranians and Aid Workers

Iran's attack was unprecedented, the first-ever direct strike on Israel from Iranian soil. While the U.S. and its allies had been preparing for a potential Iranian retaliation for days, the eventual attack was on the "high end" of what they had expected, according to U.S. officials. "If successful, this attack could have caused an uncontrollable escalation," a senior administration official said.

But the attack was also widely anticipated and telegraphed, signaling that Iran intended to respond to the Israeli strike without crossing the line into a direct armed confrontation, which Tehran has made clear for months it is seeking to avoid. “The matter can be deemed concluded,” Iran's mission to the United Nations said in a social media post just hours after launching the operation. 

Iran’s massive attack “was flashy, but not fatal,” says Ali Vaez, director of the International Crisis Group's Iran Project. “Iran kind of wanted to put up a show of force without triggering a broader escalation.” At the same time, Iran was likely hoping for a better result than having virtually all of its barrage of missiles and drones shot down, he says, which may have damaged its deterrence capability rather than strengthening it. While Iran has shown that they are willing to engage in a military confrontation with Israel, it has also "clearly demonstrated the asymmetry that exists in terms of conventional military capabilities,” Vaez says.

In the end, 99% of Iran’s drones and missiles were intercepted without causing any damage,  most of them outside Israeli airspace, according to the IDF. U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea downed between four and six ballistic missiles, while U.S. aircraft shot down more than 70 drones and cruise missiles, and a U.S. Army Patriot missile battery in Iraq shot down one more, a senior U.S. military official said, calling it a “pretty broad engagement zone.” The only damage appeared to be to an Air Force base in southern Israel, which continued to operate as normal. A seven-year-old child was also reportedly seriously injured by shrapnel.

The next day, U.S. officials were clearly eager to cast the outcome as a major Israeli victory to defuse any further escalation. In the face of an unprecedented Iranian attack, Israel’s defense in coordination with its allies had been “spectacular” and “extraordinary," three U.S. officials told reporters. The attack was repeatedly described as an Iranian "defeat" where Israel came out “clearly very much on top." The coordinated international response demonstrated both the strength of Israel’s sophisticated air defense systems as well as the coalition of anti-Iran allies, who stepped up in a critical show of support after weeks of intensifying criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war against Hamas in Gaza. The partnership “proved itself in real time,” Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said on Sunday morning. “It showed it can face Iran.”

Now, the U.S. has yet again turned to urging Israel publicly and behind the scenes to slow down and opt for a measured response. On Sunday, Biden convened G7 partners “to coordinate a united diplomatic response to Iran’s brazen attack," vowing to stand behind Israel while making it clear they would not participate in any offensive actions against Iran. "Nobody wants to run up the escalation ladder here," a senior administration official told reporters. 

Israel initially intended to respond within a day, according to Israeli media, a timeline that by Sunday evening appeared to have been pushed back. In a statement on Sunday morning, Netanyahu seemed restrained: “We intercepted. We thwarted. Together we will win,” he posted on X. Other members of his government were more aggressive, reflecting the pressure from hardliners for a decisive response. Israel will “exact a price from Iran in a manner and at a time that is right,” Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet, said in a video statement. Meanwhile, far-right Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir called for a “crushing” counter-attack, and released a series of statements saying Israel should eschew “restraint and proportionality” and “go crazy.”

Images released by Netanyahu’s office showed the Israeli war cabinet meeting late into Sunday evening as they weighed their options. Says Vaez: “The ball is now in Israel's court.”

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