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‘Cycle of retaliation must stop’

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The Al Aqsa mosque compound and the skyline of the city are seen from Mount of Olives in Jerusalem early. US media quoted officials saying Israel had carried out retaliatory strikes on its arch-rival Iran, while Iran’s state media reported explosions in the central province of Isfahan on April 19, the writers say. – Picture: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / April 19, 2024

By AFP and Reuters

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for an end to “the dangerous cycle of retaliation” in the Middle East, echoing global calls for calm following reports of retaliatory strikes on Iran by Israel after the Islamic republic’s missile and drone attack against Israel last weekend.

After its strike on Israel, Iran had declared the matter concluded. But Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned that Tehran would make Israel “regret” any new attack on the Islamic republic.

Guterres condemned “any act of retaliation” yesterday and called on the international community to prevent “any further development that could lead to devastating consequences for the entire region and beyond,” his spokesman said in a statement.

An anonymous Israeli official told The Washington Post the strike on Iran yesterday was retaliation for Tehran’s barrage and intended to signal that Israel could strike inside Iran.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency, citing “informed sources”, denied that the country had been attacked from outside. “Contrary to the rumours and claims” made in foreign media, “there are no reports of an attack from abroad on Iran’s central city of Isfahan or any other part of the country”, Tasnim said.

Three Iranian officials told The New York Times that small drones carried out the attack, possibly launched from inside Iran, and that its radar systems had not detected unidentified aircraft entering Iranian airspace.

Fars news agency reported “three explosions” close to Qahjavarestan, near Isfahan airport and the 8th Shekari army airbase, while Iran’s space agency spokesperson Hossein Dalirian said “several” drones had been “successfully shot down”.

Dalirian said on social media platform X there were “no reports of a missile attack”.

“Reports indicate there was no major damage or large explosions caused by the impact of any air threat,” the official IRNA news agency said.

The senior military officer in Isfahan, Brigadier-General Siavash Mihandoost, told state TV that people had heard defence systems shooting at a target in the air, not an explosion on the ground.

Nuclear facilities in Isfahan were reported to be “completely secure”, Tasnim said, and the UN’s atomic watchdog confirmed “no damage” to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Yesterday, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi hailed Tehran’s retaliatory attack on Israel almost a week ago, but did not mention explosions heard in his country’s central region.

Overnight last Saturday-Sunday Iran carried out its first-ever attack on Israel, in response to an April 1 air strike which levelled Tehran’s consular annex in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards members, including two generals. Israel had warned it would retaliate.

That operation “showed our authority, our people’s will of steel and our unity”, Raisi told hundreds of people in Semnan province, east of Tehran.

He did not refer to the blasts heard in Isfahan, state media said.

However, air defence systems over several Iranian cities were activated, state media reported. The explosions in Iran coincided with the 85th birthday of the Islamic republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Flights were suspended across parts of Iran, with the UAE-based flydubai airline cancelling flights to the country, but Tehran’s two major airports later resumed service.

Washington received advance notice of Israel’s reported strike, but did not endorse the operation or play any part in its execution, US media quoted officials as saying. There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon or Israel’s military.

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said yesterday the United States was “not involved in any offensive operation”, “I’m not going to speak to these reported events … All I can say is for our part and for all the members of the G7, our focus is on de-escalation,” Blinken told a press conference on the Italian island of Capri.

Italy, hosting a meeting of ministers from the G7 group of developed economies, called for de-escalation, as did European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he wants to see “calm heads prevail”.

Oman, which has long mediated between Tehran and the West, condemned an “Israeli attack” on Iran. In Israel, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir came under severe criticism for harming Israel’s strategy against Iran after he suggested Israel was behind blasts that rocked Iran yesterday.

When contacted by AFP, neither the Israeli military nor the government offered comments on the blasts.

But Ben Gvir, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, wrote “Scarecrow!” on X, meaning feeble in Hebrew slang, a suggestion Israel was behind the blasts but its action was weak.

His comment sparked reactions. “Never before a minister has done such a heavy damage to the country’s security, its image, and its international status,” opposition leader Yair Lapid wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“In an unforgivable tweet of one word, Ben Gvir managed to sneer and shame Israel from Tehran to Washington.”

Fears of a major regional spillover from the war in Gaza between Israel and Iran-backed Palestinian militants have since soared. The US embassy in Israel told its employees and their families to restrict their movements.

“Out of an abundance of caution following reports that Israel conducted a retaliatory strike inside Iran, US government employees and their family members are restricted from personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv” area as well as the Jerusalem and Beersheva areas “until further notice”, a security advisory issued by the mission on its website said.

China, Iran’s largest trade partner, said it would “continue to play a constructive role to de-escalate” tensions in the Middle East. Beijing’s embassy in Iran warned its citizens in the country to “take precautions over security risks”.

Meanwhile, in Paris yesterday, French police arrested a man who had threatened to blow himself up at Iran’s consulate in Paris, but on being searched was found not to be carrying any explosives. The TV channel BFM said he had been carrying replica grenades.

A police source said it was the same man who had been suspected of attempted arson near the Iranian consulate in an incident last September.

Le Parisien newspaper said on its website that, according to several witnesses, the man had dragged flags on the floor of the consulate and said he wanted to avenge the death of his brother.

It was unclear whether the incident had any link to current tensions between Iran and Israel. – AFP and Reuters