Iran fires air defence batteries at Isfahan air base and nuclear site after drones spotted

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Iran fired air defences at a major air base and a nuclear site near the central city of Isfahan after spotting drones early Friday morning, raising fears of a possible Israeli strike in retaliation for Tehran’s unprecedented drone-and-missile assault on the country. It remained unclear if the country came under attack, as no Iranian official directly acknowledged the possibility and Israel’s military did not respond to a request for comment. However, tensions have been high since the Saturday assault on Israel amid its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip and its strikes targeting Iran in Syria.

US officials declined to comment as of early Friday, but American broadcast networks quoting unnamed US officials said Israel carried out the attack. The New York Times quoted anonymous Israeli officials claiming the assault. Air defence batteries fired in several provinces over reports of drones being in the air, state television reported. In particular, IRNA said air defences fired at a major air base in Isfahan, which long has been home to Iran’s fleet of American-made F-14 Tomcats – purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Tasnim later published a video from one of its reporters, who said he was in the southeastern Zerdenjan area of Isfahan, near its “nuclear energy mountain.” The footage showed two different anti-aircraft gun positions, and details of the video corresponded with known features of the site of Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility at Isfahan. “At 4:45, we heard gunshots. There was nothing going on,” he said. “It was the air defence, these guys that you’re watching, and over there too.” The facility at Isfahan operates three small Chinese-supplied research reactors, as well as handling fuel production and other activities for Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

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Isfahan also is home to sites associated with Iran’s nuclear program, including its underground Natanz enrichment site, which has been repeatedly targeted by suspected Israeli sabotage attacks. State television described all atomic sites in the area as “fully safe.” Gen. Siavosh Mihandoost, a local army commander, also told state TV the incident caused “no damage” around Isfahan. Iran’s nuclear program has rapidly advanced to producing enriched uranium at nearly weapons-grade levels since the collapse of its atomic deal with world powers after then-President Donald Trump withdrew America from the accord in 2018.

While Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, Western nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Tehran operated a secret military weapons program until 2003. The IAEA has warned that Iran now holds enough enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons if it chose to do so – though the US intelligence community maintains Tehran is not actively seeking the bomb.

Dubai-based carriers Emirates and FlyDubai began diverting around western Iran about 4:30 a.m. local time. They offered no explanation, though local warnings to aviators suggested the airspace may have been closed. Iran then grounded commercial flights in Tehran and across areas of its western and central regions. Loudspeakers informed customers of the incident at Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, online videos purported to show. Iran later restored normal flight service, authorities said.

Hossein Dalirian, a spokesman for Iran’s civilian space program, said on the X social media platform that several small “quadcopter” drones had been shot down. A state television reporter in Isfahan said the same in a live report, saying “several small drones were flying in the sky over Isfahan, which were fired at.” Meanwhile in Iraq, where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents of Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

The incident Friday in Iran also sparked concerns about the conflict again escalating across the seas of the Middle East, which have been seeing attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen on shipping over the war in Gaza. The British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations centre warned ships in the region that they could see increased drone activity in the skies.

“There are currently no indications commercial vessels are the intended target,” it wrote. The Houthis have launched at least 53 attacks on shipping, seized one vessel and sank another since November, according to the US Maritime Administration. Houthi attacks have dropped in recent weeks as the rebels have been targeted by a US-led airstrike campaign in Yemen and as shipping through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden has declined over the threat.