Iranian attack on Israel expected ‘sooner rather than later’, says Joe Biden

‘We are devoted to the defence of Israel’, says US president as Western and Arab governments call for restraint

Joe Biden has said he expects an Iranian attack on Israel “sooner rather than later” and issued a last-ditch message to Tehran: “Don’t.”

“We are devoted to the defence of Israel. We will support Israel. We will help defend Israel and Iran will not succeed,” the US president told reporters on Friday.

Earlier the White House national security spokesman John Kirby warned that the threat of a significant Iranian attack on Israel remains “viable” despite Washington-led efforts, including calls to Tehran from the UK and Germany, to deter a serious escalation in the conflict in the Middle East.

The White House comments came as several countries, including India, France, Poland and Russia, warned their citizens against travel to the region and Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said his country was “prepared to defend [itself] on the ground and in the air, in close co-operation with our partners”.

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Later CBS, quoting two unnamed US officials, reported that a substantial missile and drone attack could be launched as early as Friday evening, as a number of countries urgently warned their nationals of the risk of escalating violence in the region, and Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, convened a security assessment.

Appearing to underline that report, Javad Karimi-Ghodousi, a member of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, said: “After punishing the Zionist regime in the coming hours, this villain will understand that henceforth, wherever in the world it attempts to assassinate figures of the resistance front, it will again be punished with Iranian missiles.”

German airline Lufthansa said on Friday its planes would no longer use Iranian airspace and extended its suspension of flights to and from Tehran until Thursday.

Qantas has paused its non-stop flights from Perth to London because the 17½-hour flight is possible only by using Iranian airspace.

Iran has threatened reprisals against Israel for a strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria on April 1st, in which seven members of the Revolutionary Guards including two generals were killed, sparking fears that an already volatile climate in the Middle East could quickly spiral further.

Tehran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said on Thursday that Iran felt it had no choice but to respond to the deadly attack on its diplomatic mission after the UN security council failed to take action.

Speaking to reporters, Kirby said the prospect of an Iranian attack on Israel was “still a viable threat” despite concerted efforts by Israel and the US in recent days to deter it.

“We are in constant communication with our Israeli counterparts about making sure that they can defend themselves against those kinds of attacks,” Kirby said. He confirmed that the head of US Central Command, Gen Erik Kurilla, was in Israel talking to defence officials about how Israel could be best prepared.

Israel has said it is strengthening air defences and has paused leave for combat units.

On Friday, France ordered the evacuation of diplomats’ families and warned nationals in several other countries, including Israel and Lebanon, and alerts were issued by Canada and Australia. The US also restricted travel within Israel for US diplomats and their families.

In its strong warning on Friday, the French foreign ministry advised citizens against travelling to Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories and said French civil servants were banned from conducting any missions there.

The advisories followed a number of media reports that Israel was preparing for the prospect of an attack from Iran, possibly as soon as this weekend.

A US official told the Wall Street Journal that American intelligence reports indicated an Iranian retaliatory strike “possibly on Israeli soil” as opposed to against Israeli interests elsewhere, adding that the strike could come within 24 to 48 hours.

The same report, however, also reported an individual briefed by the Iranian leadership as saying no final decision had been taken by Tehran.

The newspaper reported US officials as saying that the US navy had repositioned two destroyers in the region to protect US and Israeli forces.

While analysts had initially speculated that Iran may not rush into a response, concern has grown in the last two days over the potential for direct conflict between Iran and Israel after years of proxy conflict between the two enemies.

More recently experts have suggested that Iran now feels it is required to act militarily to restore its balance of deterrence with Israel.

On Wednesday, Mr Biden said Iran was threatening a “significant attack” against Israel and that Washington would do all it could to protect Israel’s security.

Mr Biden’s comments in turn followed a televised speech by Iran’s leader saying the attack in Damascus was equivalent to an attack on Iran itself. “When they attacked our consulate area, it was like they attacked our territory,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “The evil regime must be punished, and it will be punished.”

The Israeli military said it was fully prepared for any strike. Israel was “on alert and highly prepared for various scenarios, and we are constantly assessing the situation,” the Israel Defence Forces spokesman, Daniel Hagari, said at a press conference. “We are ready for attack and defence using a variety of capabilities that the IDF has, and also ready with our strategic partners.”

According to reports in the Israeli media, the IDF believes that Iran or one of its proxies are most likely to attempt to strike a military target rather than civilian centres, although some sites such as the Kirya, Israel’s defence headquarters in Tel Aviv, are located in city centres next to shopping malls, offices and restaurants.

However, If Iran is on the brink of war with Israel, and possibly the US, astonishingly little is being done by the regime to prepare its people for the coming struggle. That may be because Iran does not want an all-out conflict.

Even Iranian reporters have noticed the silence and how the rhetoric of imminent war is mostly being stoked by US intelligence officials in Washington. One Iranian reformist newspaper had five reports on a possible imminent attack on Israel, including predictions of hundreds of cruise missiles raining down on Israel, entirely based on US news outlets such as CBS, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

US intelligence was entirely correct before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and if it is again today, the least that can be said is that Iran is simply not joining the war of narratives. The sabre-rattling has by Iranian standards been low-key.

That may be because Tehran does not want to give any clue to its plans, but that comes with domestic risks, even in such an authoritarian society.

The seizure of an Israeli-owned container ship, the MSC Aries in the strait of Hormuz on Saturday, is important in that it strengthens a trade blockade against Israel. But the action as yet does not match the barrage of missiles the US media had been predicting.

Similarly, Iran is downplaying the various instructions to foreign citizens to leave either Iran or Israel, and reports that embassies such as the Dutch embassy in Tehran is to close are being denied.

The relative air of normality in Tehran struck some dissident commentators such as the political analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi. He said the US media and some in the Iranian government seemed involved in a collective countdown to war, but all the official news channels continued as normal. In the streets of springtime Tehran, he said: “The possibility of war was not the concern for the people who crowded around the water to watch the dancing fountains! It’s as if they usually don’t follow the news related to mutual threats between Iran and Israel or don’t take them seriously!

“The few people who were interested in talking about it believed that at most something like the attack on the American base in al-Asad would happen [the Iraqi airbase housing US troops that was attacked after the killing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps chief Qassem Suleimani]. As a result no serious US reaction would follow. My suggestion that repeating that kind of ‘reprisal’ this time may not be acceptable to the hardline supporters of the government and make things worse in terms of dignity – they considered it unimportant!”

The low-key approach may be because the Iranian regime does not want to stir an atmosphere of fear. Equally, leaving the enemy guessing, while the Israeli public listen out for air raid warnings is a small victory in itself.

But it seems more likely the muted propaganda reflects the regime’s desire to contain its reprisal for the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus so the conflict does not subsequently spiral out of control. A population whipped up into war fever will hardly help dampen popular demand for more conflict.

Voices that doubt the war’s wisdom are being allowed a hearing on social media. Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian ambassador in Jordan, said: “The goals of those interested in expanding the war are clear, but the government and analysts should not exaggerate the attack on the consulate, which is not Iran’s territory! Israel has already invaded and carried out operations on Iranian soil. Iran’s current interests do not lie in expanding the war in the Middle East. It is a fatal miscalculation.”

Mohsen Abdollahi, a Tehran university professor, warned any expansion of Iran’s attack, and especially the threat of one on civilian areas, will completely change the situation against the Iranian government and will mobilise the existing global consensus against Israel against us.

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