World leaders call for calm after Israel 'hits back' at Iran with targeted strike near nuclear facility

World leaders call for calm after Israel 'hits back' at Iran with targeted strike near nuclear facility

Israel on Friday retaliated against Iran with a limited air strike targeting the region housing the nerve centre of the Islamic state’s nuclear programme, as world leaders called on Iran and Israel to try to avoid escalating tensions.

One Iranian official played down the incident - which came on the 85th birthday of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - as a foreign “infiltration” that did not necessitate a response, seeming to lessen fears of all-out war.

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

Notably, they referred to the incident as an attack by "infiltrators", rather than by Israel, obviating the need for retaliation.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters there were no plans to respond against Israel for the incident.

"The foreign source of the incident has not been confirmed. We have not received any external attack, and the discussion leans more towards infiltration than attack," the official said.

Jonathan Lord, head of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, a US think tank, said that "seems to indicate that Iran is seeking to step down off the ledge, minimise the impact of the attack, and perhaps walk back down the escalation ladder from here".

However, Iranian worshippers chanted “death to Israel” and other slogans during an anti-Israeli gathering after Friday prayers in Tehran.

Iranian worshippers in Tehran on Friday (AP)
Iranian worshippers in Tehran on Friday (AP)

Rishi Sunak stressed that it was a “developing situation”. The PM reiterated UK condemnation of Iran’s “reckless and dangerous barrage of missiles” against Israel on Saturday night.

“But as I said to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu when I spoke to him last week, and more generally, significant escalation is not in anyone’s interest. What we want to see is calm heads prevail across the region,” Mr Sunak said.

Speaking at G7 talks in Capri, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said Israel informed its US allies at the "last minute" that the strike was about to happen during the night.

Israel said nothing about the incident and its ally Washington refused to be drawn in. Asked about it repeatedly at a press conference in Italy, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would not comment apart from to say that the United States was committed to Israel's security but not involved in any offensive operations.

"Israel tried to calibrate between the need to respond and a desire not to enter into a cycle of action and counter reaction that would just escalate endlessly," he said.

US officials briefed that at least one Israeli missile had hit Iran in the region around the central city of Isfahan, home to a major airbase and important nuclear sites including the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

Iranian officials said the airbase was hit near Isfahan but three drones were shot down and that a separate drone attack was thwarted in Tabriz, north of Isfahan. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed no damage to Iranian nuclear sites.

The IRNA news agency said air defences fired from the Isfahan airfield, home to Iran’s fleet of American-made F-14 Tomcats which were procured before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Meanwhile, Iraqi media has published photographs of what it claims is the debris of an Israeli missile fired at Iran earlier in the day.

Dubai-based carriers Emirates and FlyDubai began diverting flights around western Iran at about 4.30am local time. Iran grounded commercial flights in Tehran and across areas of its western and central regions, before allowing them to resume later in the morning.

The US officials indicated that Israel had delivered on its threats of retaliation after coming under an unprecedented direct attack from Iran involving more than 300 drones and missiles, which were nearly all shot down with the help of RAF jets.

That attack was staged in reprisal for a suspected Israeli strike on Iran’s embassy in Damascus.

Before later insisting that all was calm, Iranian media reported explosions in the night and the Revolutionary Guards posted footage of flashes of light in the sky above Isfahan. Ordinary Iranians reported hearing loud sounds.

But one senior Iranian official said any blasts were caused by air defence systems.

“The foreign source of the incident has not been confirmed,” the official said. “We have not received any external attack, and the discussion leans more towards infiltration than attack.”

G7 foreign ministers wrapped up their talks in Italy after Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron called for a “clear and unequivocal message” from the bloc of wealthy nations to the Iranian attack on Israel, in terms of tougher sanctions.

In their final communiqué, the ministers threatened to impose “new and significant” measures on Iran if it transfers ballistic missiles to Russia.

They added: "In light of reports of strikes on April 19th, we urge all parties to work to prevent further escalation. The G7 will continue to work to this end.”

The UK and US on Thursday levied their own sanctions against Iranian commanders accused of orchestrating the attack, which was thwarted with the help of UK, US, French and Jordanian air support.

But Lord Cameron has also been leading UK appeals for restraint from Israel, visiting Jerusalem for talks with the Israeli PM on his way to the G7 meeting in Capri.

Israel’s far-right security minister Itamar Ben Gvir denounced the apparent response as “feeble”. But experts said Mr Netanyahu was likely sending a calibrated message targeted at sites associated with Iran’s attack on Israel.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House in London, said: “As long as Iran continues to deny the attack and deflect attention from it and no further hits are seen, there is space for both sides to climb down the escalation ladder for now.”

Professor Michael Clarke, defence expert at King’s College London, told Sky News: 'This looks like a limited but relatively effective attack in terms of conveying the messages Israel will want to convey.”

It comes as, in Paris, armed police arrested a man who had “threatened to blow himself up” at Iran's consulate on Friday.

It was unclear whether the incident had any link to the escalating tensions between Iran and Israel.

One report claimed that the man had managed to get into a room with the ambassador where he was holed up.

Others claimed an eyewitness had seen him arrive at the consulate, open his coat to reveal what appeared to look like an explosive vest.

He is said to have put flags on the floor of the building and to have stated that he wanted to avenge the death of his brother.

Around 2pm, reports were coming in that a man had been arrested at the scene.