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Could the Conflict Between Iran and Israel Turn Nuclear?

If Iran decides to respond to a suspected Israeli strike on its territory on April 19, it might not have to pull its punches like it did the last time.

Tehran's telegraphed barrage against Israel last week was written off by many as a failure. But Iran has many arrows in its quiver should its standoff with Israel continue to escalate.

Experts say that Iran has more sophisticated weaponry at its disposal, can bring its proxies into the fight, and, unlike its attack on April 13, can utilize the element of surprise. And the ultimate threat -- officially activating its long-suspected effort to develop a nuclear weapon -- could come into play.

Caution First

Iran's initial response after its territory was hit on April 19 was muted. While unidentified U.S. officials reportedly said that Israel had carried out the attack, Tehran did not directly accuse Israel of involvement. Israel has not commented on the incident.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that there was "no plan for immediate retaliation, and no clarification on who is behind the incident."

"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 toward infiltration than attack."

Iranian Army General Siyavush Mihandoust said only that explosions heard in the central city of Isfahan were "due to the work of air defenses against suspicious objects."

Iranian state television reported that three small drones were shot down east of Isfahan, which is home to Iranian nuclear facilities, and broadcast footage that projected an image of calm in the city.

A spokesman for Iran's National Center of Cyberspace, Hossein Dalirian, dismissed reports by U.S. media that quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying that missiles were used in the attack.

"There have been no air strikes from outside [Iran's] borders against Isfahan or other parts of the country," Dalirian wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "They have only made a failed and humiliating attempt to launch drones, and the drones were shot down."

Timing Is Everything

Analysts said it is common for Tehran to hold off on commenting on such incidents until it can determine a course of action.

But if Iran does choose to respond militarily -- as it did on April 13 in retaliation for the April 1 killing of seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in a strike on the Iranian Embassy in Damascus that it blamed on Israel -- it can take things much further.

Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, noted that ahead of Iran's April 13 barrage against Israel, which was effectively thwarted, Tehran ensured that "everybody would know about it beforehand."

There was deliberately "no element of surprise," Azizi said.

But hours before the April 19 strike, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told CNN that if Israel again took actions against Iran, "the next response from us will be immediate and at a maximum level."

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani on April 15 said that "there will not be a 12- or 13-day gap" between an Israeli strike and an Iranian answer. Israel, he said, "must now reckon in seconds, not hours."

The Iranian officials' stress on the immediacy of a possible retaliatory strike signals that Iran would not telegraph its strategy this time, raising the chances of inflicting greater damage.

More In Iran's Arsenal

Tehran launched more than 300 drones and missiles during its April 13 attack, in which the vast majority were either shot down or failed to reach their target, but experts and Iranian officials have suggested it could have used more powerful weaponry.

IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Sardar Hajizadeh said that Iran had used "old weapons with minimal power" on April 13, adding that Tehran had decided against using more powerful missiles, including hypersonic missiles, in its arsenal.

Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Berlin, questioned the veracity of Iran's claim it could have used better weapons, saying that one of the missiles launched against Israel, the Kheibar Shekan ballistic missile introduced in 2022, "is one of the best missiles Iran has."

Hinz told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that in terms of quality, he is not sure Iran could make a "qualitative jump" in any future attack.

In terms of sheer numbers, however, Iran has "many, many more missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in stock," Hinz said. "There is no doubt about that."

Dangerous Friends

While Iran sent a message with its April 13 attack that it was willing to take on Israel directly and had the capacity to inflict heavy damage, Tehran still has many partners and proxies willing to strike their mutual enemy.

While members of Iran's so-called "axis of resistance" have been battling Israel -- including the U.S.- and EU-designated terrorist organization Hamas, Huthi rebels in Yemen, and Lebanese Hizballah -- those groups for the most part sat out the April 13 attack.

"One thing Iran could do is involve Hizballah, because Hizballah is just much closer to Israel," Hinz said. "And when you deal with amazing defenses, the best thing to do is to overwhelm them, and that is much, much easier at a shorter distance."

Going Nuclear

Just hours before the April 19 strike, an IRGC commander specified that an attack that targeted Iranian nuclear facilities would prompt a reciprocal attack on Israeli nuclear sites and could even lead to a rethinking of Iran's official nuclear doctrine.

Ahmad Haqtalab, who oversees nuclear security for the IRGC, said in comments published by Iranian media on April 18 that "our hands are on the trigger for reciprocal attacks using advanced missiles against their own nuclear sites."

Iran has long been suspected by Israel, the United States, and other countries of pursuing a nuclear weapon, while Tehran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed after Israel's apparent strike that "there is no damage to Iran's nuclear sites." But prior to the incident, Haqtalab said that even the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites made it "possible and conceivable that the doctrine and nuclear policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran will be reviewed to reverse the declared considerations of the past."

That decision would ultimately be made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final call on all major decisions in Iran and has claimed that Iran cannot pursue nuclear weapons for religious reasons.

But Azizi emphasized that the threat is real, saying that an attack on Iranian territory "might be exactly what Iran wants to find an excuse to weaponize its nuclear program."


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