Iran launches drone and missile strike against Israel as Biden rushes back to White House

<span>Joe Biden meets with members of his national security team regarding the Iranian attack on Israel on 14 April 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Adam Schultz/WHITE HOUSE/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Joe Biden meets with members of his national security team regarding the Iranian attack on Israel on 14 April 2024.Photograph: Adam Schultz/WHITE HOUSE/AFP/Getty Images

Iran said it launched dozens of drones and ballistic missiles towards Israel on Saturday in a major attack following days of acute tension building up in the region and warnings from the US and elsewhere about a wider conflict erupting.

Air attack warning sirens began wailing over Jerusalem just before 2am local time on Sunday after the weapons were fired a few hours earlier from Iran with US and Jordanian military assisting Israel’s air defenses in intercepting the first incoming barrage.

With weapons believed to be still in the air en route to Israel, Iran’s mission to the United Nations posted on X: “Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus. The matter can be deemed concluded.”

Related: US and UK forces help shoot down Iranian drones over Jordan, Syria and Iraq

However, it threatened more severe action in the face of further Israeli aggression and warned the US and Jordan specifically not to assist Israel.

Nevertheless, the United States military and Jordanian fighter jets shot down some Iranian drone aircraft, officials said.

And the US embassy in Jerusalem told all US government employees to shelter in place until further notice, according to a security alert posted on Saturday.

R Adm Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesperson, had earlier said that Iran launched the new offensive late on Saturday.

It was the Islamic Republic’s first-ever direct attack on the Jewish state, a development that brings the two countries to the brink of all-out conflict after more than a decade of shadow war and soaring stress six months into Israel’s war in Gaza following the Hamas attack last October.

It was reported on Israeli television that Iran had launched more than 100 drones as well as cruise missiles towards Israel, and Iran later said it had fired a “first wave” of ballistic missiles.

Joe Biden rushed back to Washington on Saturday afternoon from a weekend trip to Delaware as it became clear from leadership signals that some sort of an attack by Iran was imminent.

The Iranian weapons were launched just a few hours after the White House had first announced the US president was returning to Washington from a planned weekend at the beach in Delaware, “to consult with his national security team about events in the Middle East”.

There had been nearly two weeks of speculation about when, where and how Tehran or its proxy forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen would respond to a 1 April Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic building in the Syrian capital of Damascus, which killed Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and eight other officers.

Biden soon after made public that Israel had not shared its intentions with the US and said he had not had prior knowledge of the strike in Syria, signaling that, in addition to Israel’s blockade on Gaza provoking famine, US influence over Israel has limits.

In addition, Biden’s hasty return to the White House on Saturday followed his saying on Friday that he expected an Iranian attack on Israel “sooner rather than later” and issued a last-ditch message to Tehran, saying, “Don’t,” which clearly was not heeded.

Earlier on Saturday, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps in the strait of Hormuz, 50 nautical miles off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, seized an Israeli-affiliated container ship.

The ship’s operator, the Italian-Swiss group MSC, later confirmed that Iranian authorities had boarded it, rappelling from a helicopter. The White House condemned the seizure of the British-owned vessel.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the US strongly condemned the seizure and urged Iran to release the ship and crew immediately, calling the incursion a violation of international law and an act of piracy.

Upon returning to the White House, Biden walked into the Oval Office and then convened a top-level meeting in the Situation Room.

According to the White House, the president was joined by Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary; Antony Blinken, the secretary of state; Gen Charles Brown, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff; William Burns, the CIA director; Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence; and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.

Austin spoke with Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, earlier on Saturday to discuss the urgent regional threats in the Middle East and “reiterated unwavering US support for Israel’s defense”, according to the Pentagon.

After the attacks began, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said: “Israel has been preparing for a direct attack by Iran. Our defensive systems are deployed … We appreciate the US standing alongside Israel, as well as the support of Britain, France and many other countries.”

The US House of Representatives will make a change in its schedule to consider legislation that supports Israel and holds Iran accountable, the House majority leader, Steve Scalise, said in a statement on Saturday.

It was unclear whether Scalise was referring to a stand-alone bill to aid Israel, or the $95bn supplemental spending bill that includes $14bn for Israel, in addition to $60bn for Ukraine, support for Taiwan and billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance, which has been held back from a vote by House Republicans.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press contributed reporting