Iran downplays Israel attacks amid claims air defence system was destroyed

Conflicting accounts surround Friday's reported strike on an Iranian air base in Isfahan

An Iranian military lorry carries parts of a S-300 air defence missile system during a parade in Tehran to celebrate Army Day. AFP
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Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian played down Friday’s Israeli attack on Isfahan, saying the drones used were more like “toys” than weapons.

His comments came as analysts said the Israeli strike may have damaged or destroyed valuable Iranian air defences.

Chris Biggers, who works with HawkEye 360, a private US satellite imagery company, studied synthetic aperture radar imagery provided by Umbra Space, a Nasa and Darpa contractor, which appeared to show damage to a Russian-made 30N6E target engagement radar.

The radar works alongside the Russian-made S-300 air defence system, purchased by Iran in 2007.

Two unnamed Iranian officials told The New York Times on Saturday that air defences were struck in Friday's attack. On Friday morning, remains of an air-launched missile were found in Iraq, although it was not clear if the weapon was used to attack Iran-linked targets in Iraq or strike Iran.

Iraq confirmed on Saturday that a base linked to the government-funded – but also Iran-backed – Popular Mobilisation Forces paramilitary was damaged by an explosion.

Satellite images suggest damage

Synthetic aperture radar imagery provides high resolution pictures captured by powerful radar beams, capable of taking images of Earth at night or through clouds.

On Sunday, Iran International, a media organisation based in the US and opposed to the Iranian government, released daytime satellite images that appeared to show a dug-in radar system protected by berms of earth, and a second image that showed blackened earth where the equipment was.

Earlier analysis said Israeli aircraft would struggle to hit targets in Iran from a safe distance, due to the country’s layered air defences and Israel’s lack of a long-range missile such as the JASSM, used by the US.

If confirmed, the potential destruction of an advanced radar system could suggest Israel may have indigenously produced a similar weapon to the JASSM, or that drones with large explosive loads were used in the attack.

Ice Breaker, an Israeli stealth cruise missile with a 300-kilometre range, will purportedly be ready for operations next year, according to its maker, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems.

This may rule out use of the missile and lend credibility to accounts that the attack was mounted using drones.

Iran is sticking by this theory, and Mr Amirabdollahian told NBC News the drones took off from inside Iran and flew for a few hundred metres before being shot down.

“They're … more like toys that our children play with, not drones,” Mr Amirabdollahian said.

“It has not been proved to us that there is a connection between these and Israel,” he said, adding that Iran was investigating the matter but that media reports were not accurate, according to Tehran's information.

Iranian media and officials described a small number of explosions, which they said resulted from air defences hitting three drones over Isfahan in central Iran in the early hours of Friday.

They referred to the incident as an attack by “infiltrators”, rather than by Israel, obviating the need for retaliation.

Mr Amirabdollahian said that if Israel retaliated and acted against the interests of Iran, Tehran's next response would be immediate and at maximum level.

“But if not, then we are done. We are concluded,” he said.

In Iraq, where investigations are ongoing after air strikes hit Kalsu, a former US base now operated by Iran-linked militias, the PMF chief of staff Abu Fadak Al Mohammedawi visited the site to inspect damage on Saturday.

Photographs from the scene showed Abu Fadak, as he is referred to, standing with PMF fighters inside a deep crater, either caused by an explosive device or its target, such as a missile stockpile.

Abu Fadak is a commander in Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Iran-backed militia that claims to have taken part in drone and missile strikes against Israel, through an umbrella organisation called the Islamic Resistance.

Updated: April 22, 2024, 6:23 AM