Intelligence boost to Israel's defences key to raising the stakes for Iran retaliation

Israel's desire to hit Iran directly now weighed against US-led pressure and the option of major strikes against regional proxies

Israel's Iron Dome system in action against Hamas rockets. The country is likely to launch major strikes against Iran's proxies in the region, experts have told The National. Getty Images
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Israel is set to benefit from a considerably higher level of intelligence sharing from the US, something that proved vital in the lead-up to Iran's attacks, and a factor as the country plots its response.

“That's super important when it comes to the intelligence side as the US has an important regional warning system that could kick in for the Israelis,” said Megan Sutcliffe, an Iran analyst at Sibylline intelligence company.

Intelligence warnings by the US, most likely gathered through signal intercepts, almost certainly provided Israel with advance warning of the strike.

Already it has emerged that Iran’s proxies should be braced for “major strikes” after the battle to defend Israel against the huge missile barrage which mainly played out in their skies, intelligence sources have told The National.

“This calls for cool heads as Israel has many ways it can launch an operation against Iran when it suits Israel,” said Richard Pater of the Bicom think tank in Jerusalem. “Iran fully understands that it has overstepped the mark big time and critically that something is coming to them sooner rather than later.”

Lebanon and Syria appear to be first in line to be attacked and Iraq could be targeted by Israel, which also has the option of striking Iran itself, although in a covert manner.

Arrows, slings and domes

The shared intelligence meant Britain was able to send more jets to its airbase in Cyprus and alongside American, French and Jordanian aircraft was able to shoot down the estimated 186 kamikaze drones and 20 cruise missiles.

It is understood these slower-moving projectiles were fired ahead of the main ballistic assault, with all 350 missiles to arrive over Israel at the same time to try to overwhelm its defences.

Intelligence sources have suggested up to half of the estimated 120 ballistic missiles Iran fired towards Israel failed to make it to their targets, instead crashing well short, most likely because of technical malfunctions.

But that still left at least 60 high-speed missiles with warheads of more than 1,500kg bearing down on Israel that could cause widespread civilian deaths, with a subsequent major Israeli retaliatory strike.

Israel’s defence system only allowed in only one per cent of the incoming attack, and that is understood to have been closely analysed by Gulf nations keen to protect themselves from Iran.

While Israel’s Iron Dome system is designed for short-range attacks, its Arrow-3 system, alongside David’s Sling, is designed specifically for “exo-atmospheric” assaults.

It is unknown how many hypersonic Arrow-3 missiles, which can travel in excess of Mach 9, were fired but a number of them were launched into near space, travelling to heights of 150km where they intercepted Iran’s ballistic missiles.

Iran's attack on Israel – in pictures

Iran decision

Security analysts have ruled out an all-out assault on Iran despite demands by right-wingers in Israel’s war cabinet, who say the weekend attack gives the country the right to devastate Tehran’s nuclear programme.

However, fighting conflicts on three fronts – in Gaza, southern Lebanon and the occupied West Bank – has significantly stretched Israeli military resources. A sustained assault on Iran would prove extremely difficult.

The US has also made clear it would not support a direct attack on Iran and experts believe Israel wants to retain newfound goodwill among its allies.

While Israel has a highly advanced air force led by its stealthy F-35s and heavily armed F-15s, the required campaign would need many sorties to erase the threat, with the high chance of planes shot down by Iran’s air defences.

Furthermore, the former prime minister Ehud Olmert disclosed to The National in February that the air force did not have enough tanker refuellers to sustain a campaign.

Damage at Nevatim Airbase after Iran attack – video

Israeli military video shows damage at Nevatim Airbase after Iran attack

Israeli military video shows damage at Nevatim Airbase after Iran attack

Beware Iran proxies

During the third cabinet meeting on Monday, Israeli ministers will have discussed the response in light of the US President Joe Biden’s insistence that they refrain from an assault on Iran.

“What is clear is that they're going to launch major strikes against the proxy forces that were involved,” an Israeli security source told The National.

Attacks against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon will intensify as well as those against Syria. Iraq cannot be ruled out, but the Houthis in Yemen will likely be ignored.

Israel’s military commanders would also almost certainly have warned their political masters that the military is already considerably stretched.

“Attacking Iran is not something that I think the state of Israel can handle right now,” said Tal Hagin, an open source intelligence analyst based in Tel Aviv.

There is a strong likelihood that Israel will focus on covert attacks, potentially with more targeted assassinations and using cyber warfare against Iran, he added.

Antonio Guterres urges restraint – video

Antonio Guterres urges restraint after Iran strike on Israel

Antonio Guterres urges restraint after Iran strike on Israel

Allied goodwill

A major western diplomatic effort is under way to dissuade Israel from a retaliation that could invite further escalation and the potential for regional war.

“The narrative is that this is enough for Iran, that they struck Israel and it is probably the wiser strategy for Israel to keep the United States’ support more than anything else,” said Prof Yossi Mekelberg of the Chatham House think tank.

He added that the US would be saying “let's actually leave it open for not retaliating because at the end of the day the Iran attack was in retaliation” for the Israeli attack on its embassy compound in Syria.

Israel should also not forgo the “goodwill” it has just built among its allies after the devastation in Gaza in which about 33,800 Palestinians have been killed.

“That goodwill is now strong among its allies, both in the region and internationally, which is why I would be surprised if Israel retaliates directly with high-intensity strikes on Iran,” said Ms Sutcliffe. “They will not be willing to throw that goodwill away when we're at such a crucial point in US-Israel relations.”

War of words at UN Security Council – video

War of words at UN Security Council between Israel and Iran

War of words at UN Security Council between Israel and Iran

Attack Iraq?

With Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias presenting a threat to both Israel and to US bases in the country, there is a suggestion they might be targeted.

Although it cannot be ruled out, it is unlikely that Israel itself will overtly attack Iraq.

However, with high sensitivity over the continued tenure of its bases in Iraq, Washington will be reluctant to launch strikes, especially in the short term with an Iraq delegation in the US capital.

“There will be great instability surrounding US strikes and counter strikes on proxy activity,” said Ms Sutcliffe. “Especially as there are rising tensions within Iraq to adjust the agreement with the US about the status of US and coalition forces in Iraq.”

Another security source suggested that the US might suggest it would strike Iranian proxy targets in Syria and Iraq to “dissuade Israel, saying we’ll sort this”.

Updated: April 16, 2024, 8:15 AM