Iran’s aerial assault on Israel: Understanding the escalation

The Iranian forces targeted Israel’s Nevatim airbase in the southern Negev desert region, which they alleged was the launch point for recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. The strikes represented an unparalleled escalation by Iran against Israel.

In an escalation of the long-simmering conflict between Iran and Israel, Tehran launched an unprecedented, coordinated aerial assault on its longtime adversary over the weekend. The large-scale barrage saw about 350 rockets, including 170 drones, over 120 ballistic missiles, and more than 30 cruise missiles fired from Iran as well as Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

The Multi-Pronged Iranian Strike


The Iranian forces targeted Israel’s Nevatim airbase in the southern Negev desert region, which they alleged was the launch point for recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. The strikes represented an unparalleled escalation by Iran against Israel.

While Israel’s sophisticated air defence systems managed to intercept an estimated 99% of the incoming projectiles with assistance from the United States, Britain and Jordan, some missiles did reach the Nevatim base, causing light structural damage. However, the base was able to continue operations with planes taking off and landing.

“We have decided to create a new equation,” warned Revolutionary Guards commander Hossein Salami, using Iran’s term for Israel as the “Zionist regime.” “If from now on the Zionist regime attacks our interests, assets, personalities and citizens anywhere and at any point, we will retaliate against them.”

Retaliating for the Strike on Iran’s Syrian Outpost

The large-scale Iranian strikes came in direct retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on the Iranian consulate in the Syrian capital Damascus earlier this month. That attack destroyed the consulate building and killed at least seven Iranian officials including top Revolutionary Guards commanders.

Among the dead was Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a high-ranking general who had formerly led the IRGC’s ground forces, and air force, and been deputy commander of its operations. His death represented the highest-profile Iranian target eliminated by Israel since the U.S. assassinated Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had warned that Israel would be punished for the Damascus strike, while President Ebrahim Raisi said it “will not go unanswered.” The Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group had also vowed to exact “punishment and revenge.”

Raising Fears of Wider Regional Conflict

In the aftermath of the barrage, Israel has vowed to “exact a price” from Iran for the assault, though the Israeli security cabinet remains deeply divided over the scope and timing of any retaliation. While hardline voices like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir have called for harsh military retaliation, more moderate members advocate prioritizing de-escalation.

For its part, Iran has threatened even more destructive strikes against Israel if Netanyahu’s government chooses to retaliate further. “We will retaliate against them with a much bigger blow,” an Iranian armed forces spokesperson warned.

The unrestrained rhetoric from both sides has raised fears that the latest escalation could spiral into an uncontrolled wider conflict, dragging the entire region into a catastrophic new war. The United States and Western allies like Britain have urgently called for restraint to avoid such an outcome.

Speaking with Netanyahu on Sunday, President Biden made clear that the U.S. would not participate in any offensive operations against Iran. Instead, Biden told the Israeli leader he should consider the events a strategic “win” given Iran’s failure to inflict significant damage on Israeli territory.

A Dangerous New Phase

The unprecedented Iranian barrage marked a worrying new frontline in the long-running hostilities between Tehran and its archenemies Israel and the United States. While the two sides have engaged in a “shadow war” of covert attacks, airstrikes and proxy conflicts for years, this weekend’s overt strikes by Iran marked an escalation not seen before.

The conflict has played out in recent years through Iranian backing and funding of anti-Israel militant groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran’s forces have also regularly clashed with U.S. troops based in Iraq and Syria.

But this weekend’s barrage of missiles and drones fired directly from Iranian territory represented an ominous new phase in those long-simmering tensions. Whether it proves to be a momentary escalation too far or the opening salvo in a dangerous new chapter of the conflict has yet to be determined.

The timing of the Iranian attack has only added to concerns. Tensions were already running exceptionally high due to the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which began last October 7 when the Palestinian militant group launched a new barrage of rocket attacks.

Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have launched dozens of attacks aimed at U.S. military positions in recent months, vowing that the strikes would not cease until Israel’s offensive in Gaza ended. For its part, Israel had warned of intelligence indicating Iran was planning an imminent attack.

With so many combustible elements already in play, the region is now holding its breath to see if the bitter adversaries can step back from the brink or if another cycle of escalating violence lies ahead. The prospects for progress towards resolving the underlying conflicts look darker than they have in years.

The Aftermath and Next Moves

In the immediate aftermath, a virtual emergency meeting of G7 leaders condemned the “unprecedented” Iranian attack on Israel and warned that it “risks provoking an uncontrollable regional escalation.”

“We demand that Iran and its proxies cease their attacks, and we stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilizing initiatives,” the group said in a joint statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet for two lengthy meetings on Sunday and Monday to debate a response. According to Israeli officials, the three-man war cabinet reviewed potential military options but had not made a final decision as of Monday evening. There was a sense, however, that Israel felt compelled to act quickly.

“Iran’s attack will be met with a response,” warned Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, while an Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson said the military would do “all that is necessary” to defend the country and “will do that at the time we choose.”

Israeli officials have indicated they are not “looking for a significant escalation with Iran” but that some retaliation appears inevitable to defend the country’s interests. “They’re looking to protect themselves and defend themselves,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

A senior U.S. military official revealed that U.S. forces played a significant role in defending Israel during the Iranian barrage. U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea destroyed between four and six Iranian ballistic missiles, while U.S. aircraft shot down more than 70 Iranian drones headed towards Israel. A U.S. Patriot missile battery also intercepted an Iranian ballistic missile near Erbil in northern Iraq.

The U.S. had already taken steps to bolster its military presence in the region given the deteriorating security situation, deploying additional fighter jets and air defence systems to shore up its basing and protection of partners like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

For its part, Tehran has declared the barrage a success that demonstrated its ability to strike Israeli territory while delivering on its vow of retaliation for the Damascus strike. Iranian state media heralded the attacks as the beginning of a “new era” in its confrontation with its enemies.

But both sides know that further escalation could quickly lead to devastating consequences across the Middle East and potentially beyond, given the involvement of the U.S. and its allies. While domestic political pressures in both countries could push towards confrontation, the wisest course may be to seek a mutually face-saving way to step back from the brink.

Whether the combustible mix of underlying enmities, regional militia proxies, shadow wars and existential stakes will allow the foes to find that off-ramp remains to be seen. But after this weekend’s events, the world is watching perhaps more closely than ever before.