Fears of Middle East apocalypse as Iran attacks Israel

News Desk & Ag Agencies
Sunday, Apr 14, 2024

CAIRO/ DUBAI: A number of drones were seen flying from the direction of Iran over Iraq’s Sulaymaniya province, three security sources told Reuters on Saturday night. Israeli media reported cruise missiles were also launched by Iran.

“Dozens of drones were spotted flying from Iran in the direction of Israel over Iraqi airspace,” two Iraqi security sources told Reuters.

Iraq announced shutting down its airspace and suspending all air traffic on Saturday, Iraq’s transport ministry told the country’s state-owned news agency.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden will meet with national security officials and cabinet members at the White House on Saturday afternoon to discuss events in the Middle East, the White House said as Israel reported Iran has launched a drone attack.

According to National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson Iran has launched an attack against Israel that is “likely to unfold over a number of hours.”

“President Biden is being regularly updated on the situation by his national security team and will meet with them this afternoon at the White House,” and the team “is in constant communication with Israeli officials as well as other partners and allies,” the statement reads.

Watson reaffirmed the president’s position that “our support for Israel’s security is ironclad” and that the United States will “stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran.”

CNN reported that drones will take several hours to reach destination. Iranian strategy seems to compel Israel to waste as much defensive assets as possible.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country’s defence systems have been deployed and that Israel’s armed forces were ready. “I established a clear principle -- whoever hurts us, we hurt him. We will protect ourselves from any threat and we will do so with coolness and determination,” he said.

Public shelters have been opened in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The municipal administration held a special situational assessment on Saturday based on the security situation. “Also, in the event of an alarm, the Carmelit light train stations approved for use as shelters by the Home Front Command will be opened,” according to a message from the Haifa government sent to residents.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in a statement said it has targeted specific places in Israel by launching dozens of drones and missiles. Iranian Defence Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani warned that Tehran will firmly respond to any country that “opens its airspace or territory for attacks on Iran by Israel”, Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency reported early Sunday.

The attack jolted the region and beyond. Jordan announced temporarily closing its airspace late on Saturday to all incoming, departing and transit aircraft, Al Mamlaka also reported, citing aviation authorities saying the situation would be “continuously updated and reviewed according to developments”.

Interference in Jordanian air traffic affected Jordan’s GPS system prompting planes in the area to use alternative navigation systems, Haitham Misto, the chairman of Jordan’s Civil Aviation Regulatory Commission, said on Al-Mamlaka.

Lebanon announced the temporary closure of its airspace, Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV said late on Saturday. Egypt called for exercise of the ‘utmost restraint’ to spare region and its people from further factors of instability and tension. Syria put on high alert its Russian made Pantsir ground-to-air defence systems around capital and major bases, army sources said.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Saturday he condemned Iran’s “reckless” attack against Israel, which he said showed that it was “intent on sowing chaos in its own backyard”. “These strikes risk inflaming tensions and destabilising the region. Iran has once again demonstrated that it is intent on sowing chaos in its own backyard,” Sunak said in a statement. “The UK will continue to stand up for Israel’s security and that of all our regional partners, including Jordan and Iraq.”

Officials said the Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group remains in the region. The strike group includes 6,000 sailors, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58), and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Mason (DDG 87) and USS Gravely (DDG 107). The destroyers have the ability to intercept missiles. They have repeatedly intercept launches from Iranian proxies. The group also includes Carrier Air Wing Three, which is composed of nine squadrons, including four strike fighter squadrons. Additionally, air defense systems for US force protection exists in Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

The Israeli military intends to try and intercept drones launched by Iran before they reach Israeli skies, according to a military official. Israel anticipates that Iran may launch additional waves of drones over time and is monitoring other Iranian assets for additional types of attacks, the Israeli military official added. Earlier, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, days after Tehran said it could close the crucial shipping route and warned it would retaliate for an Israeli strike on its Syria consulate. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that a Guards helicopter had boarded and taken into Iranian waters the Portuguese flagged MSC Aries, saying it was linked to Israel.

MSC, which operates the Aries, confirmed Iran had seized the ship and said it was working “with the relevant authorities” for its safe return and the wellbeing of its 25 crew. MSC leases the Aries from Gortal Shipping, an affiliate of Zodiac Maritime, Zodiac said in a statement, adding that MSC is responsible for all the vessel’s activities. Zodiac is partly owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer.

Video on Iranian news channels purporting to show the seizure included a figure abseiling from a helicopter on to a ship. It has been verified that the ship in the video was the MSC Aries but not the date it was recorded.

Following the development, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on nations to list the Guard as a terrorist organization. Iran “is a criminal regime that supports Hamas’ crimes and is now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law,” Katz said. “Iran will bear the consequences for choosing to escalate the situation any further,” Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a statement.

Israel called off on Saturday school trips and other youth activities planned for the coming days, the beginning of the Passover festival, and placed the armed forces on full alert due to a possible attack by Iran. Announcing the measures in a televised briefing, chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said dozens of combat planes were airborne as part of the state of readiness. The White House on Saturday called on Iran to immediately release the British-owned ship it seized near the Strait of Hormuz. “We call on Iran to release the vessel and its international crew immediately,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. “Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.” It added that the operation took place “near the Strait of Hormuz” and “this ship has now been directed towards the territorial waters” of Iran.

The Pentagon said Saturday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Israeli counterpart “to discuss urgent regional threats ... and made clear that Israel could count on full U.S. support to defend Israel against any attacks by Iran and its regional proxies.” National security adviser Jake Sullivan also spoke with his counterpart to reinforce Washington’s “ironclad commitment to the security of Israel.”

The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations described the vessel as being “seized by regional authorities” in the Gulf of Oman off the Emirati port city of Fujairah, without elaborating. MSC confirmed the Aries had “been boarded by Iranian authorities via helicopter as she passed the Strait of Hormuz” on Saturday morning. A Middle East defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, provided video of the attack to The Associated Press in which Iranian commandos are seen rappelling onto a stack of containers on the vessel’s deck. A crew member can be heard saying: “Don’t come out.” He then tells his colleagues to go to the ship’s bridge as more commandos come down. One commando can be seen kneeling above the others to provide them potential cover fire.

The video corresponded with known details of the MSC Aries. The commandos rappelled from what appeared to be a Soviet-era Mil Mi-17 helicopter, which both the Guard and the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen have used before to raid ships. In Iran, meanwhile, officials publicly denied faked text messages sent in the name of civil defense authorities that urged the public to “prepare drinking water and dry food” due to the “emerging emergency situation.

Iran since 2019 has engaged in a series of ship seizures, and attacks on vessels have been attributed to it amid ongoing tensions with the West over its rapidly advancing nuclear program. In previous seizures, Iran’s initial explanations made it seem like the attacks had nothing to do with wider geopolitical tensions, then later acknowledged as much. In Saturday’s attack, however, Iran said only that the MSC Aries had links to Israel.

Iran has largely avoided directly attacking Israel, despite its targeted killings of nuclear scientists and sabotage campaigns on Iran’s atomic sites. Iran has targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces.

Amid concerns about the increased tensions, Lufthansa Group on Saturday extended its suspension of flights between Frankfurt and Tehran through Thursday and said its planes would avoid Iranian airspace. The German carrier also said that, until at least Tuesday, flights to and from Amman will be operated as “day flights” so crews won’t spend a night in the Jordanian capital. The incident comes amid rising regional tensions since the start of Israel’s campaign in Gaza in October, with Israel or its ally the United States clashing repeatedly with Iranian-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Iran has threatened to retaliate for suspected Israeli airstrikes on its consulate in Syria’s capital Damascus on April 1 that killed seven Revolutionary Guards officers including two senior commanders. US President Joe Biden said on Friday he expected Iran to attack Israel “sooner, rather than later” and warned Tehran not to do so.

On Tuesday the naval head of the Revolutionary Guards, Alireza Tangsiri, said it could close the Strait of Hormuz, which lies between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, if deemed necessary.

He said Iran viewed as a threat Israel’s presence in the UAE, with which Israel established diplomatic relations in 2020 as part of the “Abraham Accords” mediated by the United States. Analyst Hasan Alhasan of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said if the seizure of the MSC Aries was in retaliation for Israel’s strike on Iran’s Damascus consulate, it showed a desire to save face without a wider escalation. “Iran may be trying to play on fears that it could obstruct shipping through the strait, a passageway of greater significance to global oil and gas supplies than the Red Sea,” he said. “If Iran were to limit itself to seizing commercial vessels linked to Israel, then it would minimise the risk of an all-out conflict but damage its own credibility,” he added.

Yemen’s Houthi group has disrupted global trade with attacks on shipping in the Red Sea for months, saying it is aiming at vessels linked to Israel in retaliation for Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

The United States and Britain have carried out strikes against Houthi targets in response to the attacks on shipping.

The Joint Maritime Information Center, run by a Western-led naval coalition, said vessels intending to navigate the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important energy routes, should exercise caution and not loiter.