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Iran strikes Israel in retaliation for an attack that killed top Iranian officers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than 300 Iranian drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles flew toward Israel Saturday, raising the specter of a wider conflict between Israel and Iran that could drag the U.S. into the fray.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The unprecedented strikes were in retaliation for an attack earlier this month that killed top Iranian officers at Iran's embassy compound in Syria, an attack attributed to Israel. Despite the scale of the attack, there was very little damage. Israel and the U.S. - along with Great Britain, France and Jordan - shot down nearly all of the missiles and drones. And Iran told the United Nations it considered the matter, quote-unquote, "concluded" as long as there was no counter strike.

FADEL: To make sense of all this, we're joined now by NPR international correspondent Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and our national security correspondent Greg Myre here in Washington. Good morning to you both.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Daniel, let's start with you. Walk us through Iran's strikes and how this all unfolded.

ESTRIN: Well, it began late Saturday night. Israel announced that Iran was firing drones toward Israel and that it would take hours for them to arrive. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Israelis in a video statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: So he told Israelis, "our defense systems are deployed. We are prepared for any scenario both in defense and attack." And then several hours later, around 2 a.m., sirens started going off - 2 a.m. local time. They went off in Israel's north, in the south, even in Jerusalem. There were these bright orbs of light flying through the air above the golden Dome of the Rock, you know, the holy site.

FADEL: Yeah.

ESTRIN: There were booms of interceptions. There was the rumble of fighter jets in the skies. And Israeli fighter pilots who have been speaking on Israeli army radio have said that they never imagined or even drilled for such a massive attack in terms of just the number of projectiles at the same time. Ninety-nine percent of them, Israeli officials say, were - either fell short or were intercepted mid-air.

FADEL: Greg, now, several other countries also took part in this shootout. What can you tell us about that?

MYRE: Yeah, Leila. The overall tally is really quite remarkable. Altogether, we're talking about nine countries involved in some form. Iran fired from its homeland, but it also fired from positions in Iraq and Syria. The Houthis in Yemen launched attacks. So Israel was facing incoming air strikes from four separate countries. Israel, as Daniel just mentioned, shot down most of this fire. But the U.S. took part from Navy ships in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Jordan shot down some of the drones, it said not to protect Israel but to defend its own airspace. And Britain and France also shot down drones. So five countries were involved in shooting down the Iranian drones and missiles. Perhaps most remarkably, there's been no reports of anyone killed, just a couple injuries.

FADEL: Now, Daniel, even though the damage was limited, people across the region really weren't sleeping this weekend. What did Iran have to say about the attack?

ESTRIN: Well, Iran says that it was exercising legitimate defense. It was responding to the Israeli attack on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus. And the way that Israeli analysts explain that Israeli attack is that, you know, during the Gaza war, Iran has been fueling, you know, six months of attacks on Israel through its proxies in Lebanon and Yemen. And Israel here wanted to deliver a strong response, only Israel apparently did not expect Iran to respond the way that it did.

Now, Iran was also sending many messages here. Iran says it gave other countries 72 hours' notice of these strikes and also told the U.S. through other countries that it did not intend to strike U.S. targets or military bases. Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian spoke yesterday through an interpreter. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOSSEIN AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) We told them that our target in this defense is simply to attack the Israeli targets.

ESTRIN: So Iran's signaling it does not want this to escalate further. You know, even before the missiles reached Israel, Iran's mission to the U.N. tweeted, as Michel mentioned earlier, this matter can be deemed concluded. It warned Israel not to respond, and it said the U.S. must stay away.

FADEL: Now, the U.S. said it would not participate in any retaliatory attacks. But, Greg, it was very much involved in Israel's defense over the weekend, right?

MYRE: Oh, absolutely. The U.S. and Israel, and other partners were closely coordinating air defense plans. They had about 10 days to get ready for this because it was pretty well-telegraphed, and they knew it was coming. Still, a U.S. official who briefed reporters, he described the Iranian barrage as being very much at the high end of what they had anticipated.

And he also described this very tense moment when all these Iranian weapons were bearing down on Israel, including more than a hundred ballistic missiles, all in the air at the same time, within a few minutes of Israel. And as we noted, the U.S. participated from Navy ships in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Here's John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, talking about the shooting on Weekend Edition Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: It proved the superiority of the Israeli Defense Forces. It proved the military superiority of the United States and our other partners that participated in this. That was an incredible success.

FADEL: Now, Greg, President Biden spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu right after the Iranian airstrikes. What was the president's message?

MYRE: Yeah, according to U.S. officials, President Biden urged Netanyahu to proceed now with caution. He told the Israeli leader that the U.S. will provide ironclad support to help Israel defend itself, but the U.S. is not going to take part in offensive operations against Iran. U.S. officials said Biden is not telling Israel what it should or shouldn't do. But clearly the U.S. would prefer Israel to see this as a very successful operation, proof that Israel, with help from the U.S. and others, can defend itself and should consider the path of de-escalation. And it's in keeping with Biden's stance since the Israel-Hamas war erupted in October. Again, here's Admiral John Kirby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRBY: Everything we're doing is trying to prevent a wider regional conflict. And there's certainly no reason, in our view, that it needs to become so.

FADEL: OK, but I want to understand what Israeli leadership is thinking. Daniel, what are the options they're weighing after this attack?

ESTRIN: Israel's security cabinet is debating this very issue. An Israeli official told me this morning that everyone in the government in Israel believes that Israel has to respond somehow because this is not the shadow war anymore, Leila. This is not Iran hiding behind proxy groups in Yemen or Lebanon. This was a first-ever declared attack launched from Iran directly toward Israel. It's an escalation in Israel's eyes.

And so the Israeli official I spoke to says the question is how Israel is going to respond. Some want a military response, a strong one. Others see this as an opportunity for diplomacy to build a strategic alliance in the region, maybe even to end the war in Gaza, establish ties with Saudi Arabia. And that would be a deterrent against Iran in the long term.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and Greg Myre in Washington. Thanks to you both.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

MYRE: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "THE PATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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