A weekend attack on an Iranian military facility was likely orchestrated by Israel and is part of an escalating tit-for-tat between the countries that shows Israel is growing bolder about striking Iranian weapons facilities, according to former U.S. officials and intelligence sources.
Explosions rocked an Iranian military site in Isfahan early Sunday, with U.S. officials indicating that Israel’s Mossad conducted the attack using remote drones. While Israel has not confirmed its responsibility, sources told the Washington Free Beacon that the attack shows Israel has the military capability to strike within Iran and is not concerned with the possible repercussions of confronting the Iranian regime.
"The Israeli strikes inside Iran demonstrate that Israel views the regime as both weak and dangerous," Gabriel Noronha, a former senior Iran adviser at the State Department during the Trump administration, told the Free Beacon. "Israel also views Iran as weak if it is willing to make such an overt strike inside the country."
Israel is believed to be targeting Iranian ballistic missile factories producing weapons the Islamic Republic could use in a war with the Jewish state. This weekend’s attack sent a message to Iran that its most vital military facilities are not immune to an Israeli operation. The latest strike also came days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Israel for high-level meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring that the conservative Israeli leader is willing to risk a full-blown confrontation with Iran even as the Biden administration continues to pursue diplomacy aimed at securing a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal, according to sources who spoke to the Free Beacon.
"The target of ballistic missile facilities is important: In the event of an Iranian-Israeli war, ballistic missiles will serve as the greatest threat to Israeli lives and cities," Noronha said. "Dealing a blow to their production capabilities is a smart move to kneecap the regime in the medium-term, but Israel better hope it knows how to eliminate the missile stockpiles too in the event of a war."
While it remains unclear what exactly the Isfahan military facility was producing, U.S. officials pinned the strike on Israel’s Mossad, the country’s secret service, the New York Times reported on Sunday. Sources who spoke to the Free Beacon also said Israel is the most likely source of the attack. It is not likely the attack was aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, they said, but rather its missile capabilities.
"I suspect this has more to do with missiles," Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, told the Free Beacon. "Iran has openly bragged about its increasing precision, and the Israelis might have reason to take them at their word. At the same time, the Israelis are also signaling they can do this at will."
Mysterious fires and explosions have rocked several Iranian military sites in the past few years, including a 2021 act of sabotage at the Natanz nuclear site. A year before that attack, the Natanz complex caught on fire. Both strikes, as well as others, are believed to have been conducted by Israel, and Iran has struck back by targeting Israeli interests in the region.
Israel is believed to have the resources and networks needed to launch drone strikes on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) targets from territory in Iraq, according to the former military official, who spoke on background about this information. Outposts in Iraq are making it easier for Israel to conduct attacks like the one that took place over the weekend.
"It’s an intentional message to Iran that ‘we can hit you from places you think you control,'" the official said. "We will continue to target the IRGC and its proxies inside Iraq with impunity and inside Iran to show our reach."
Israel conducted several airstrikes inside Iraq at will over the last four years, according to Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer and Middle East scholar at the Hudson Institute. The Iraqi people did not protest Israel’s attacks on the IRGC Quds Force’s rocket and missile depots in a sign of support for these operations. "The reason," Pregent said, is "the attacks were viewed as justified attacks on Iran's destabilizing activity in Iraq and the Levant."
Iranian officials sought to downplay the attack, claiming they successfully warded off the drones and that only minor damage was caused to one building.
"This cowardly act was carried out today as part of efforts made by the enemies of the Iranian nation in recent months to make the Islamic Republic insecure," Iranian foreign minister Amir-Abdollahian said over the weekend.
Iranian officials also said Russia is helping to investigate the incident, highlighting the Kremlin’s interest in ensuring Iranian drone and missile factories remain online. Iran has been supplying Moscow with drone technology for use in its unprovoked war in Ukraine. It remains unclear at this point if Israel hit the facility with this aspect in mind.
The State Department declined to comment.
During a joint press conference with Blinken on Monday afternoon, Netanyahu said Israel’s policy, "and my policy, is to do everything within Israel’s power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. And that will remain so."
A Pentagon spokesman denied any U.S. role in the attack in comments to CNN.
"We’ve seen the press reports, but can confirm that no U.S. military forces have conducted strikes or operations inside Iran," the spokesman told CNN on Monday. "We continue to monitor the situation, but have nothing further to provide."
Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Israel’s action and said the Biden administration’s policy of diplomacy with Tehran continues to endanger American allies in the region.
"By striking a military target in Iran, Israel has taken decisive action against the primary force of instability in the region and the leading sponsor of terror throughout the globe," Issa said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s Iran policy has been muddled and muted, save for when it wasn’t openly appeasing Iran and agreeing to one concession after another."