Iran fires on apparent Israeli attack drones near Isfahan air base and nuclear site


Dubai, United Arab Emirates — An apparent Israeli drone strike on a major air base near downtown Isfahan activated Iran's air defenses early Friday. The attack came just days after Tehran's unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel.

No Iranian official has directly acknowledged the possibility of an Israeli attack, and the Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment. However, regional tensions have been high since Saturday's attack on Israel amid its war against Hamas in Gaza and its own attacks on Iran in Syria.

At the G7 meeting in Capri, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the US had received information from Israel about the attack on Isfahan “at the last minute”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not deny this, but said: “We were not involved in any offensive operations.”

The apparent attack occurred on the 85th birthday of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Israeli politicians also suggested in comments that the country had launched an attack.

Air defense batteries were fired in several provinces after reports of drones in the air, state television reported. Iranian army commander General Abdolrahim Mousavi said the crews attacked several flying objects.

“The explosion this morning in the sky of Isfahan was related to the shelling of a suspicious object by air defense systems, which did not cause any damage,” Mousavi said. Others suggested that the drones could be so-called quadcopters – small four-rotor drones that are commercially available.

Authorities said a major air base in Isfahan, long home to Iran's fleet of American F-14 Tomcats purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was shelled.

The Tasnim news agency published a video of one of its reporters saying he was in the southeastern Zerdenjan area of ​​Isfahan, near the “nuclear energy mountain.” The footage showed two different anti-aircraft gun positions, and details of the video matched known features of the location of Iran's uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.

“At 4:45 p.m. we heard shots. There was nothing going on,” he said. “It was the air defense, those people watching you, and over there too.”

The Isfahan facility operates three small Chinese-supplied research reactors and also handles fuel production and other activities for Iran's civilian nuclear program.

Isfahan is also home to sites linked to Iran's nuclear program, including the underground Natanz enrichment facility, which has repeatedly been the target of suspected Israeli sabotage attacks.

State television described all nuclear sites in the region as “completely safe.” The United Nations' nuclear regulator, the International Atomic Energy Agency, also said after the incident that “no damage was caused to Iran's nuclear sites.”

The IAEA “continues to call for utmost restraint from all and reiterates that nuclear facilities should never be a target of military conflict,” the agency said.

Since the collapse of the nuclear deal with world powers after then-President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal in 2018, Iran's nuclear program has rapidly evolved to produce enriched uranium at near weapons-grade levels.

While Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, Western nations and the IAEA say Tehran operated a secret military weapons program until 2003. However, the IAEA has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to build multiple nuclear weapons should it decide to do so. US intelligence agencies claim Tehran is not actively searching for the bomb.

Dubai-based airlines Emirates and FlyDubai began diversions in western Iran around 4:30 a.m. local time. They made no statement, although local warnings to fliers suggested the airspace may have been closed.

Iran then suspended commercial flights in Tehran and parts of its western and central regions. According to authorities, Iran later restored normal air service.

Around the time of the incident in Iran, the Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a military statement saying Israel had carried out a missile attack on an air defense unit in the south of the country, causing material damage. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the attack hit government forces' military radar. It was not clear whether there were any injuries, the Observatory said.

This area of ​​Syria lies directly west of Isfahan, about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, and east of Israel.

Meanwhile, residents of Baghdad, Iraq, where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, reported hearing the sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

Friday's incident in Iran also sparked concerns that the conflict could escalate again in the seas of the Middle East, where the war in Gaza has seen attacks on ships by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The British military's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations Center warned ships in the area that they could see increased drone activity in the skies.

“There is currently no indication that commercial vessels are the intended target,” it said.

According to the US Maritime Administration, the Houthis have carried out at least 53 attacks on ships since November, hijacking one ship and sinking another.

Houthi attacks have declined in recent weeks as Yemen's rebels have become the target of a U.S.-led airstrikes campaign and shipping through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has declined due to the threat.

The apparent attack also briefly spooked energy markets, sending benchmark Brent crude oil above $90 before falling again in trading on Friday.

However, Iranian state media tried to downplay the incident after the fact by broadcasting footage of an otherwise peaceful Isfahan morning. That could be intentional, especially after Iranian officials have for days threatened retaliation for any Israeli retaliatory attack on the country.

“As long as Iran continues to deny and deflect attention from the attack and there are no further attacks, there is room for both sides to climb down the escalation ladder,” said Sanam Vakil, the director for the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.


Associated Press journalists Nasser Karimi, Mehdi Fattahi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Bassem Mroue in Beirut; and Nicole Winfield in Capri, Italy; contributed to this report.