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Iran says it shot down drones as regional tensions flare. How did we get here?


By Simone McCarthy, CNN

(CNN) — An unclaimed aerial attack in central Iran on Friday comes fresh on the heels of tit-for-tat Iranian and Israeli strikes earlier this month, marking a potentially dangerous escalation of the Middle East conflict.

Israel carried out the strike inside Iran Friday morning, a US official told CNN.

Iranian officials have so far sought to play down the incident, and Israel has not claimed responsibility for what appears to be the latest salvo fired as a decades-long shadow war between the two countries emerges into the open – ratcheting up fears of an escalation into a wider regional war.

Iranian air defenses intercepted three drones, a Tehran official said Friday, after reports of explosions near an army base in the central province of Isfahan. There were no reports of a missile attack, Iran’s National Cyberspace Center spokesperson Hossein Dalirian said on social platform X.

A loud blast near Isfahan city was caused by “air defense firing at a suspicious object,” a senior Iranian military commander said, adding there was no “damage or incident,” according to the state-aligned Tasnim news agency.

All facilities around Isfahan were secure, including significant nuclear sites, Iranian media reported. The United Nations nuclear watchdog confirmed no Iranian nuclear sites were damaged.

The attack on Iran follows an unprecedented Iranian assault on Israel last weekend that Tehran said was retaliation for a deadly suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Syria on April 1. The reprisals marked the first time the Islamic Republic had launched a direct assault on Israel from its soil.

In the wake of Iran’s retaliatory attack, countries including the United States called for restraint from Israel to prevent an escalation, as Israel’s ongoing war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza has already sent tensions between it and its neighbors soaring.

The US “didn’t green light” an Israeli response, another senior US official told CNN. Prior to Friday’s strike, the US expectation was that Israel would not target civilian or nuclear facilities, the second US official said.

Why is this happening now?

Friday’s attack follows Iran’s launch of hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel last Saturday, which triggered air raid sirens and the activation of Israel’s air defenses.

That assault appeared designed to maximize spectacle while minimizing casualties as the vast bulk of the projectiles were downed by Israel and its allies.

Israel last week pledged, however, that it would “exact a price” from Iran in response to that aerial barrage. Israel’s war cabinet met periodically this week without announcing any definitive action.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told CNN Thursday the intent of last weekend’s strikes “stayed within a minimum of frameworks” and the action was “legitimate defense” in response to what Tehran has said was an Israeli strike on its consulate in Damascus on April 1.

That airstrike destroyed the consulate building, killing at least seven officials including Mohammed Reza Zahedi, a top commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and senior commander Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said at the time.

The Israeli military has not acknowledged responsibility for attack in Syria, telling CNN at the time it does not comment on foreign reports. However, a military spokesperson said Israel believes the target struck was a “military building of Quds forces” — a unit of the IRGC responsible for foreign operations.

The Pentagon also said the US’ assessment was that Israel had carried out that airstrike.

How is this related to Gaza?

The tit-for-tat attacks have played out amid Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza against Palestinian militant group Hamas. The conflict in the enclave has caused a major humanitarian crisis and thousands of civilian deaths, putting the region on edge.

Israel launched its war following Hamas’ October 7 attack on its territory, which Israeli officials said killed more than 1,200 people and saw around 250 taken hostage.

Iran, which has a network of proxies throughout the region and is seen as a long-time backer of Hamas, has denied involvement in that attack.

But since the outbreak of war in Gaza, Iran’s proxies have launched attacks on Israel and its allies and wreaked havoc on global shipping by launching missiles and drones at commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

Tehran is believed to back but not fully control its proxies, including powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The US has been a staunch supporter of Israel during its war against Hamas. However, US President Joe Biden and senior members of his national security team have told their Israeli counterparts the US will not participate in any offensive action against Iran, according to US officials familiar with the matter, CNN reported earlier this week.

What’s next?

Despite calls from allies for Israel to show restraint, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said Israel will make its “own decisions” when responding to Iran’s airstrikes.

Hours before the first reports of explosions in Iran emerged Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian had warned that Tehran’s response would be “immediate and at a maximum level” to any further Israeli military action against it.

“If the Israeli regime commits the grave error once again our response will be decisive, definitive and regretful for them,” Amir-Abdollahian told CNN.

“We do not seek to create tension and crisis or increase such situations in the Middle East and we sincerely hope the Israeli regime does not repeat the previous egregious error,” he said.

The details of a potential “maximum response” have been planned by Iran’s armed forces, he added.

Iranian media, however, appeared to downplay the severity of Friday’s attack, publishing footage and images of calm scenes in Isfahan and the northwest city of Tabriz.

Israel would need significant support from Western allies to enter into a full-blown war in the Middle East, according to Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center research foundation.

“Israel does not have the capacity for a long-term all-out war without external support. It would need the commitment from the United States to continue providing arms. It relies on the United States and other Western powers on a number of military fronts,” she told CNN.

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CNN’s Alex Marquardt, Adam Pourahmadi, Hamdi Alkhshali, Irene Nasser, Tara John, Elizabeth Wolfe and Jennifer Hauser contributed reporting.

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