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CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip

Iranian News Agency Reports, Explosion Heard in Iran; Iran Says Flights to Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz are Suspended; Israel Strikes Back At Iran. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired April 18, 2024 - 22:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: After that, Nic, the president of the United States, who helped the United States, Britain, other western allies helped to repel the Iranian attack, and the appeal from President Biden to Israel was, you proved they couldn't hit you. Don't do anything provocative. Don't do anything that further escalates the region already on end. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not listened to the president of the United States when it comes to the Hamas conflict. As it's safe to say, it appears he's not listening to him here.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: John, I think what is safe to say at the moment is that it appears, as in all likelihood, that Israel has struck Iran. Now has -- if this has happened, has Israel, has the prime minister dialed back what he might have otherwise planned?

Certainly, there's been a huge international push. You had the British foreign secretary, the German foreign secretary here a couple of days ago with repeating that message to all the ministers they met, the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister, the president of Israel, do not escalate the situation, but both seem to accept that Israel was going to go ahead, John.

KING: Nick Robinson for us live in Jerusalem with the early reporting, Nic, I appreciate that hustle very much.

Our coverage will continue immediately right now. CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip starts now.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Explosions in Iran.

Good evening. I'm Abby Phillip in New York.

There's breaking news tonight, reports that Israel may have hit back. Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency, citing local sources, says tonight an explosion was heard northwest of Isfahan. That is about four hours south of the capital city of Tehran. And we can't say anything right now about what caused that explosion, but if Israel did in fact strike, that decision would ignore persistent pushing from the United States and its allies all across the world to show restraint. CNN's reporters are here with us standing by. Let's start with Alex Marquardt. He is live tonight in Washington. Alex, what do we know at this hour?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Abby, details still very much coming in, but we have had percolating reports about explosions, blasts heard in Iran. Of course, the immediate assumption is this is indeed the Israeli retaliation for Iran's massive strike against Israel last weekend with more than 300 drones and missiles.

But what we know so far is simply that explosions have been heard. This comes from now multiple Iranian semi-official news outlets, the latest from press T.V. reporting that an explosion was heard near Iran's central city of Isfahan. The reason is still unknown. And that echoes what we heard just moments ago from another semi-official news agency called, Fars.

So, here we have Iranian media itself reporting an explosion or explosions in one of Iran's most prominent cities. Isfahan, it is in the middle of the country, towards the western part of the country. It does have a prominent nuclear facility, but I will note that this was near Isfahan.

So, it is very much unclear what the target may have been, indeed how this was carried out. We have not heard anything, Abby, from the IDF, from any Israeli officials. We have not heard anything from any American officials.

We, of course, are checking with our sources. This is something that we have been anticipating for several days now. It has always been a question of how Israel would try to thread the needle of responding to this historic attack by Iran without escalating the situation.

That has certainly been the priority of the U.S. and its allies that Israel should be allowed to do what it wants to, because it's a sovereign country, but not escalate this already incredibly volatile situation.

And, Abby, I would just note that about two and a half hours ago, right here on CNN, the Iranian foreign minister said in no uncertain terms that if Israel were to strike Iran directly, that there would be an immediate and maximum response from Iran.

But for now, Abby, we are still trying to learn what these explosions, or this explosion was, that is now being reported by Iranian media. Abby?

PHILLIP: Yes, very important of you to underscore the seriousness of this particular moment. And those comments from the Iranian foreign minister are incredibly significant.

Alex, stand by for us. I want to go now to CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson. He's joining me live now from Jerusalem. Nic, as Alex pointed out, it has been at the urging of the United States that Israel take a beat and perhaps back down in this moment to cool off tensions. We don't know who is responsible or what these blasts might have been, but this could be the moment of expansion of this conflict that everyone has been warning us about for months now.


ROBERTSON: Yes. As Alex was saying there, the Iranian foreign minister just a few hours ago saying that there would be a decisive immediate response that essentially Israel would regret it.

The skies over this city are quiet. There're no sirens going off here. We're not aware of sirens anywhere else in Israel at the moment. We are beginning to get a few more details of the strikes, all these explosions, at least, as far that we know about now, in Isfahan, northwest of Isfahan, is what the Fars News Agency in Iran, semi- official news agency there, is reporting.

So, we are beginning to build up a slow picture. And I think a couple of other details to bring into the picture that we've been tracking over the past few hours, flight radar, tracking of flights in the skies above Iran, have indicated within the past hour or so that flights have been changing their flight paths to avoid Iranian airspace.

We're also aware that, in the last half an hour or so, a NOTAM, a no- fly declaration has been made for the west of Iran, which would be the side of Iran that, if there were Israeli fighter jets on their way into Iranian airspace, they would be coming from potentially from the west of Iran. They could come from the south as well, but perhaps a more direct, more covert route for them might be from the west. So, that piece of information, I think, is telling and important.

And I think what first caught our attention here earlier on this evening, which could be completely unrelated, but a number of small earthquakes were recorded in several Iranian desert locations outside of cities.

Now, there's no detailed information that we have about these yet, but this evening, this sort of gathering picture of strikes or explosions heard in other cities, we know of at least two other cities where the local population that we cannot confirm at the moment, I should stress that, cannot confirm, have reported unexplained explosions.

Now, of course, in Iran, people can be concerned about the possibility of this pending Israeli airstrike threat, and people can misread things that can be as much as an exploding tire on the road outside of where they live. So, I stress all this information has to be tracked down.

And, of course, Iran controls the information flow inside the country, and the internet is not ready available, and Twitter is not ready available. And a high-speed cellular network connection is not so ready for people. The Iranian government controls that because they want to control the message and information, whether it's about protests on the street or the explosions that may be happening in the country.

So, the fact that we're only through the news channels that are sanctioned by the government of Iran hearing about explosions in one city or close to one city, Isfahan, is only as far as we can tell at the moment part of the picture of what we think may be happening. But it's going to take time for us to look at what we're hearing, look at the details we're getting, cross-referencing them, and try to get some better clarity on them.

PHILLIP: Yes. And, Nic, as you're talking there, I just want to reset for people who may be just joining us. We can report now that there have been explosions heard inside of Iran near the city of Isfahan. That's about a few hundred miles south of Tehran. That's a city that is the third most populous city in Iran.

We also know a couple of things about Isfahan. It has one prominent nuclear site. It also has an army base nearby.

But as Nic was just telling us there, we don't have a clear picture of who might be responsible, what might be responsible for those blasts. We don't have a clear picture of what else might be going on because of how locked down Iran is.

But, Nic, I do want to ask you, just generally zooming out here, a strike inside of Iran, what is the significance of that?

ROBERTSON: Well, for Israel, it would reestablish deterrence, which is what Iran said last weekend. They had established in their favor the ability to strike back with the intent to deter Israel from striking them.

Israel has relied historically in this region that is oftentimes very hostile to its existence.


Iran, for example, denies the existence of the Israeli state. It is an existential threat to Israel. And deterrence is the way that Israel has deemed is the only effective way to put off potential aggressors in the region. So, if they have struck tonight, it will be an effort to reset that deterrence.

Now, the Iranian foreign minister was very clear, if there's any sort of strike whatsoever, then there would be a swift and decisive response from Iran.

Now, they could use proxies in Lebanon, such as Hezbollah. And I have been talking to sources in Lebanon this evening. And they also feel that the situation is on a very tense place in Lebanon at the moment, in respect of Hezbollah, potentially Hezbollah expecting themselves to be to be targeted.

However, I think what that means at the moment in the bigger picture is it really adds to the very, very tense nature of what's happening and what could happen as an outflow of the early indications of what we believe that we're seeing in Iran. But this is going to be a decision that comes down to the Iranian government to determine what they need to do when they've assessed what has caused these explosions around the country tonight. Their language has been very clear and bold and would indicate that they're not going to shy away from responding, but that it will be, and it appears to be as if the ball is shifting to their court. It was in Israel's and it shifted back to theirs.

PHILLIP: Nic, thank you for all of that. Please stand by for us.

We do have to continue to emphasize that at this moment, there is very little information that we know about what is happening inside of Iran. Iran is not a place where there is a lot of information that comes out, but we do know, according to some semi-official news sources inside of Iran, that some explosions have been heard near the city of Isfahan. That is in the sort of central western part of Iran, south of Tehran as well.

I want to bring in now former DNI, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Director Clapper, this is a very serious moment as we wait to find out exactly what has happened here. The reports, as of right now, of explosions, are obviously not in a vacuum. It's in the context of this intense counterattack by Iran on Israel over the weekend. The United States had been trying to push retaliation off. Do you see indications tonight that those efforts ultimately failed?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, you know, as you indicated, Abby, first report is never quite accurate or certainly in this case complete. But if the inferential evidence that we have so far is accurate, it would appear that Israel has retaliated. And which we knew was, you know, when the question of whether is a question of when. We do need more clarity on what the targets are and the nature of damage done, were there casualties, et cetera.

I think there are two major questions that the president will look to his national security team for. One is to intelligence. Okay, the Israelis have attacked, apparently attacked Iran. How will the Iranians retaliate? And secondarily, that's a question for the intelligence community. And then from a policy perspective, we had stated that we would not support an attack by Israel against Iran. Well, will we support Israel when Iran counter-retaliates?

So, we could be in for, you know, a tit-for-tat that could rapidly get out of control. So, this is, you know, a pretty serious turning point.

I had commented earlier that, you know, it looks like the Iranians crossed the Rubicon by attacking, or attempting to attack Israel proper. Well, the other side of that Rubicon appears now has been crossed by Israel. So, you know, where do we go from here?

PHILLIP: Where do we go from here, the question of the hour. It just so happens that CNN interviewed the Iranian foreign minister just two hours ago live on this air. I want you to listen to what he told Erin Burnett.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN, IRAN MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Our response to the Israeli regime was limited and stayed within a minimum of frameworks.


We will not continue. However, in case the Israeli regime embarks on adventurism again and takes action against the interests of Iran, the next response from us will be immediate and at a maximum level. It will be decisive.


PHILLIP: As a trained intelligence official, when you hear that pretty absolutist language, it will be immediate and at a maximum level, it will be decisive, what do you hear?

CLAPPER: Well, I take him at his word. I think, you know, right now, the Iranian regime is a very hard line, more so than perhaps in Iran's history. And so I take him at his word. I think they will respond in kind.

And, of course, the question is, how can this be de-escalated, if it can be, at all? But I take seriously what he's saying, and I believe the Iranians will respond. And I don't believe they can't stand another embarrassment like the first attack, where they mounted this massive attack, which essentially was completely ineffective.

PHILLIP: Director Clapper, please stand by for us. I want to go live now to the Pentagon, where Oren Liebermann is there standing by.

Oren, anything you're hearing right now from military officials in this country.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not at this point. Right now, U.S. officials are being very quiet here. We haven't gotten confirmation or information about what they're seeing in this case, but I certainly agree with James Clapper that it's difficult to see this very much so as anything other than Israel's response, which had been promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

So, it's difficult to see the situation we're playing out right now with reports of explosions in Isfahan, Iran, as well as some explosions in Syria and Iraq as anything other than the Israeli response that they had been promising.

A few interesting points to make here. Over the course of the past six months, we have seen Israel openly talk about some of its strikes in Lebanon, a smaller number in Syria. Here it seems, if this is indeed Israel, Israel once again choosing to be quiet.

This is a policy they had followed for many, many years, not talking about actions and strikes that they would carry out in Syria, sometimes in Iraq. There were a number of reasons for that. One of those was simply not to be seen as boasting or bragging about an attack, not to add insult to injury.

So, potentially, Israel once again following that policy right now, aware of not only how sensitive the entire situation in the region is, but also the desire of the United States not to see the situation escalate anymore here.

Now, the question of explosions in Syria and Iraq, if Israel were to have attacked Iran, how would they do so, knowing that some of the countries that aided in the defense from the Iranian attack several days ago did not want to see anything coming through their airspace once again. Jordan, for example, would be an example of that.

So, how would Israel, if it wanted to, seek out to strike Iran? Obviously, the obvious choice there is going through Syria and then over Iraq directly into Iran, likely with some sort of long-range missile taken from a fighter jet.

Now the question of where does this go from here, I'll go back to Erin Burnett's interview with the Iranian foreign minister, which as you pointed out just a couple of hours ago, despite the fact that that was a completely ineffective Iranian attack on Israel, the foreign minister claimed victory.

So it will be interesting to see how they describe this attack when they're able to say more. Do they simply call it a complete failure and what does that mean for their response? That's something the U.S. and, in all likelihood, Israel are right now watching very closely.

Abby, one more question. The countries that participated in the defense of the Iranian attack, given the fact that this was or at least appears to be the Israeli response, do they do so again given what we're looking at here? And that's another question that the U.S. and others have to answer.

PHILLIP: A lot of questions at this hour. Oren, thank you. Stand by for us again.

I do want to reset for folks who may be tuning in right now. There have been explosions heard inside of Iran tonight. And, of course, this comes just days after Israel warned that it would retaliate after Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at its territory over the weekend.

But I do want to underscore that we do not know what the cause of these explosions are. We don't know if these were indeed caused by Israeli strikes. We do know the location. It's in that city you see there on the map, Isfahan, the southwest portion of Iran, south of Tehran.


And we also now are getting right now some very first images of what might be happening there, flashes as you see there in the sky above Iran.

Nic Robertson is back with us now. Nic, I don't know if you've seen these images or if you can see them now but it certainly seems to be some ongoing activity or quite a lot of activity in the skies above Iran.

ROBERTSON: Yes. Again, we're trying to sort of piece together the limited information we have. Our assessment is that the most recent explosion sighted in the sky near Isfahan is about within the last half an hour.

So, this does seem to be, as best we can read the situation, somewhat ongoing, although we're not quite reading it in real-time. We're also getting information more about the general picture in the skies above Iran.

We know that a number of flights have now been canceled out of Tehran airport. That's significant that the airspace around there seems to have been closed. We know that there has been a NOTAM alerted for the west of Iran, for the skies above the west of Iran, so a no-fly zone for aircraft there.

We're also seeing through flight tracking that some flights have been diverted from the airspace. So, it certainly gives the impression that there is unusual activity in the skies above Iran tonight and reason for the Iranians to be cautious about putting up commercial aircraft, which perhaps indicates that they are not in control of these unusual, unspecified events in the sky above Iran.

My language is incredibly careful here, because we don't know what's actually happening in the skies there. We don't know what aircraft are there. There's a broad supposition that this could be an Israeli strike, but we don't have confirmation of that.

We know Israel has been talking about striking back, but we don't know what's happening. We can piece together the picture. Something untoward is happening in the skies above Iran, and there are explosions close to a city that has a principal nuclear research facility, as well as multiple military bases.

Again, we don't know the precise locations of these explosions, but we do know that they appear to be ongoing in pattern, at least as recently as the last half an hour.

We also know that we have been tracking some other reports that have not yet come on Iranian state media. These have been social media reports. They have not yet come on state media in Iran in a couple of other cities. So, let's be cautious about that information for the moment as we try to piece together at least what we know the state media is reporting in Iran.

PHILLIP: That caution is important. I'm glad that you reiterated it. We've been telling our audience all hour so far that this is just really preliminary information, but these images, as you said, certainly seem to indicate that something is happening in Iran tonight.

Nic, do stand by for us. We are getting word right now from Iran that flights into Tehran and Isfahan have been suspended. CNN Military Analyst and retired Major General Spider Marks is here with us as well. General Marks, what do these images tell you? I see it almost looks as if dawn is on the verge of breaking there, but I'm seeing in my eye multiple flashes of bright light in the sky. What do you see?

MAJ. GEN. SPIDER MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, first of all, you know, what we have to keep in mind is, as Nic described, is there is a litany of assumptions that everybody is making right now, and we're trying to piece all this together. One assumption is, was the United States surprised before Israel? If Israel made a strike, another assumption, was the United States a priority?

If there was a strike, was it a series of cruise missiles that were launched from Israel or launched from some fighter in route Iran that never hit Iran airspace, but in fact, leased those cruise missiles? What was the ordinance on those cruise missiles? Damage assessment on the ground? Were there multiple engagements?

Was this possibly a massive ordnance penetrator, you know, one of those deeply bombs that goes after a very deep target? The United States has those. Was it the mother of all bombs, which we saw released a number of years ago in Afghanistan? Those have a very -- because they're so large, about 30,000 pounds, can they be released by aircraft that the Israelis have currently in their inventory?


Possibly an F-15 that was equipped appropriately. The empty wave in an F15 plus the loaded weight underneath, you'd be right at the hair in terms of the distance, the tolerance, and the ability to do that.

But, again, I mean, these are all assumptions that that we're making, that will be pieced together here shortly.

PHILLIP: Very shortly, we hope, because certainly there's a lot of speculation going on right now about what might have happened here.

I do want to go back to Alex Marquardt. Alex, you have some new reporting. What are you learning?

MARQUARDT: Well, just to answer the general's question there, Abby, there was a sense among U.S. officials that if there were a counterattack by Israel against Iran that the U.S. would be warned about it, not just as a courtesy because the U.S. is Israel's closest ally and its biggest supporter in terms of military aid and certainly in this war in Gaza, but also because an Iranian retaliation could significantly put American troops in harm's way.

Of course, there are American troops and Syria as well as Iraq, there are American ships throughout the Middle East. And so there was a sense from senior officials who I've been speaking with for the past few days that if Israel decided to carry something out that they would be told. So, that's why, of course, we are reaching out to all of our sources now to get a sense of what the U.S. knew and when. So, again, to underscore that we do not know right now whether Israel has carried out any kind of strike.

But I want to emphasize something that I learned a couple days ago, Abby, and that is the U.S. expectation, they had been told by Israeli officials that were there to be a counterattack, and, that was the expectation, we have been expecting something from Israel over the course of the past few days, that it would be, to quote one official, limited in scope. And what that would mean is essentially, we think, a handful of strikes. Another official was saying a kinetic attack against, say, military targets.

Again, back to Israel's efforts to try to thread the needle in terms of sending a message to Iran, hitting back at Iran without escalating this situation, I was just speaking with a senior U.S. official just moments ago about that limited scope. And the understanding from the U.S. was that that would not include civilian or nuclear facilities.

So, we're talking about Isfahan. We're talking about the nuclear facility that is there. And I'm being told now by a U.S. official that their understanding from Israeli officials was they would not go after any nuclear, any new facilities in our counterattack.

Again, we do not know that the explosions happened near there or at that facility, and we again don't know whether Israel carried out any kind of attack. But that certainly was the understanding from U.S. officials.

One more thing, Abby, is that the U.S. thought that Israel was going to do something and strike back at Iran because of that attack last weekend, but the U.S. firmly did not want Israel to this. And in speaking with this senior official just moments ago, that person said, you know, there was no green light from the U.S. for any kind of retaliatory attack against Iran.

Now, the US is not saying that Israel needs their permission because Israel is a sovereign nation. They can do whatever they want. But in this moment, with such massive U.S. support for Israel's war in Gaza, the U.S. certainly has a large amount of leverage.

And the United States, along with close allies, France and Britain, who, mind you, helped out in that -- helped defend Israel last weekend, other members of the G7, they all wanted Israel to, in the words of the White House, take the win, recognize that they had been attacked by Iran on a massive scale and done a very, very good job at defending themselves, knocking some 99 percent of projectiles, the drones, and missiles out of the sky, and that that Iranian attack was in response to Israel's attack two weeks prior in Damascus.

So, in the view of Biden administration, the score had essentially been settled. And at this extremely intense moment the U.S. did not want to see any more action by Israel against Iran. And so, of course, there is profound fear that that is exactly what we are seeing right now.

We don't know it but there's a good chance that Israel is carrying out some kind of operation and then, of course, we have to get a sense of what that strike looked like, whether it was indeed in that narrow scope. Because if it was, that will tell us that Israel is hoping that that will be the end of it.

But, of course, as I and others have said in these past few moments, the foreign minister of Iran saying very clearly right here on CNN that they are very willing to hit back, hit back hard, it back quickly and expand the kind of targets that they tried to go after last weekend, which as far as we know, were just military. Abby.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN ANCHOR: Alex, as you're talking there, we're just getting some new information. Iran is now saying that its air defense systems have been activated, seemingly indicating there was some kind of attack that transpired in its airspace.

As we're talking now, I want to bring in Political Global Affairs Analyst, Barak Ravid. Barak, I know that you are working your sources inside of Israel, inside of the U.S. government to find out as much as you can about what's going on here tonight. What are you hearing?

BARAK RAVID, CNN POLITICAL AND GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I don't hear much from the Israelis. One of Netanyahu's aides, whom I spoke to just minutes ago, just told me, "no comment." But on the other hand, you know, it's five in the morning now in Israel and he was awake. So, I think it tells -- it tells you a lot, even if he says "no comment."

Nothing much also from the Biden administration. All the officials I try to reach are in radio silence right now. But I think it's pretty clear to everybody what's going on. There is a, what seems to be quite a significant strike, airstrike on, in Iran near Isfahan. And you know, the air defense systems were activated. And I think it's fair to say that I don't -- I cannot think of any other country right now other than Israel that has any interest or motivation to conduct such a strike in Iran.

PHILLIP: It's an important point. Look, as you were hearing Alex Marquardt just a little while ago, telling us what he had been hearing from U.S. officials, which is that they had been getting something that seemed to be parameters from the Israelis about what may or may not be fair game if there were to be a counterattack, according to Alex's sources, that they were not going to go after nuclear facilities.

We do know that Isfahan has -- there is a nuclear facility there. And just in February, Iran said that it started to build a research center there. So, we know that. There's also an army facility near Isfahan as well. Do you hear anything on the Israeli side about what they think would be within the parameters of a counterattack after what transpired over the weekend?

RAVID: Yeah, I don't think there was any intention to conduct a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. This is a much, much, bigger operation than what the Israelis were planning in recent days. What the Israelis were trying to do is to conduct a strike that will be a retaliation on the one hand against a military target in Iran, but on the other hand will not be too big so that it would push Iran for an even bigger attack than they conducted last Saturday.

And I think it's a very, you know, it's a very complicated balancing act. I'm not sure the Israelis are calculating well enough the Iranian intentions and the Iranian willingness to retaliate again for this Israeli strike. And I think the next few hours will be very, very sensitive and dangerous when it comes to where this thing is going for now and whether the Iranians will take another hit at the Israelis.

PHILLIP: To that exact point, as we've been discussing, it is incredibly significant that just a few hours ago the Iranian foreign minister said on CNN that they would have a maximalist response to any kind of Israeli activity in Iran, essentially.

As you just noted, it's a question of whether the Israelis made the right calculation. If that is in fact the case, do you think that inside of Israel there would be some second guessing about the wisdom of a counterattack?

RAVID: Well, I think that the -- I don't know if to call it the hope or an assessment, but what I heard from Israeli officials in the last few days is that they think that the Iranians will retaliate, but they will not retaliate in a -- in a, let's say, wider -- it won't be wider retaliation than the one they conducted last Saturday. And then, you know, both sides will call it a day. But again, it's all assumptions.

Nobody knows what the Iranians are going to do and we can only look at what they were saying publicly. And you just said it a minute ago. They said that their response will be stronger than the initial attack on Saturday. And if that's the case, we might find ourselves in this, you know, escalation after escalation after escalation that can lead us to a regional war.


PHILLIP: Where does it end, Barak? I mean, where does the confidence come that after one retaliation and then another response that it might stop?

RAVID: That's a good question. And we have to remember that when the Israelis killed the Iranian general in Syria two and a half weeks ago, it seems like it was last year, okay? And they didn't think that the Iranians will retaliate and they miscalculated.

And the Iranians did retaliate with 350 rockets, drones, and cruise missiles. And it surprised many people in the Israeli intelligence community and security establishment. And I think it's a good question. Why do the Israelis think they can really anticipate what the Iranians are going to do next.

PHILLIP: Barak Ravid, good to have you here tonight. Thank you for all of that. CNN's Paula Hancocks is in Beirut for us now. Paula, you are hearing now from the Iranians. What are they saying?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Abby, what we have heard is the Iranians pointing out that if there was some kind of an Israeli response, if it went after Iranian assets, then the President, Ebrahim Raisi, said that the response from Iran would be heavier and it would be a more dangerous response. Now, as far as Tehran was concerned, after the drone and the missile

attacks of last weekend, almost as that attack was still ongoing on Israeli soil, we heard from Tehran that they said this has been concluded.

So, as far as they were concerned, at least as far as they said publicly, that was in response for the Israeli attack on the diplomatic compound in Syria, which they said they felt as if it were on their home soil, on Iranian soil, as they said it was a diplomatic compound. And that was their response to that. They were very clear that they believed that that was the end of it, something which Alex reporting has shown as well, that the U.S. was hoping would be the case.

But clearly we have heard from the Israeli side that that is not the end of it, that they would be responding at some point, as well. But from the Iranian side, we have also heard just yesterday, local time on Thursday, from a Revolutionary Guards commander who's in charge of nuclear security in Iran, saying that if, and it is an if, Israel were to go after some of its nuclear assets, then it could, in fact, rethink its nuclear doctrine, its nuclear policy.

Now, Iran has been saying up until this point that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, something many countries do not take at face value. But they have said that if there is this case where Israel does go after its nuclear assets, then that could change the equation quite significantly. Also, this commander saying that they know where the Israeli nuclear assets are, for example, and that they could go after those assets.

Now, of course, a lot of this could be posturing, a lot of this is for public consumption, even domestic consumption within Iran, as well. But this is the response that we have been hearing over recent days from Tehran, that if Israel goes after its assets, then the response would be more significant coming the other way. Abby.

PHILLIP: Paula Hancocks, thank you, and stand by for us, as well. Here to give us some more context about this area, the geography of what we're looking at here in Iran, is retired army major Mike Lyons. Major Lyons, tell us a little bit more about Isfahan, that is both a province and a major city in Iran. What do we know?

MIKE LYONS, RETIRED U.S. ARMY: So, Abby, if you look at the way nuclear weapons are made, they're mined, then they're converted and then they're enriched, right? We all saw "Oppenheimer". And what that city contains is a facility that converts, converts uranium ore into yellow cake and eventually that gets enriched and then becomes a nuclear weapon.

So, the why I think that could possibly be a target, going back to what General Mark said, is because Israel wants to show Iran that it has the capability to reach out and get to that facility. We don't know if that specific facility was attacked. They could have just attacked around a military target around it in some cases.

But the message I believe Israel would be sending, or hypothetically, is that they can get to that facility. That's an important facility because it's the second step in how nuclear bombs are made. And if Israel can take that linchpin out, then the Iran nuclear program is somewhat set back.

To say that Israel can launch some kind of air attack right now, given the extent of what the Iranian nuclear program is right now, is just not a good assumption. So, but this, I think the why is they're telling Iran that if we wanted to, we could reach out and touch that if we had to.


PHILLIP: So, Major General, just as you were speaking, we are now hearing that there have been explosions near an army base there in Isfahan. What do we know about the military capabilities that are located in that area?

LYONS: Well, they're likely air defense platforms. They have those kinds of weapons systems protecting all of their nuclear facilities here. So, again, Israel decides to attack, come due east across Iran, takes out air defense platforms that exist in there. And to General Marks' point, did they attack with a cruise missile?

I likely think that they used manned aircraft in this kind of operation to ensure that their targeting was very precise. Maybe they did not want to hit that facility on purpose, but they went after the military targets there. So, the kind of military is there, is there to protect it just from what Israel did, which again, the why becomes sends the signal to Iran that says, we can come after this facility if we want to.

PHILLIP: All right. General Lyons, thank you for all of that. Let's bring in Max Boot. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist at "The Washington Post". Max, you've been listening patiently to all of this reporting. The big question tonight, is this the escalation that everyone has been fearing?

MAX BOOT, SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: It certainly looks like it, Abby, although we don't know the details. I mean, I think what you're really seeing is that the rules of the road at the Middle East are being rewritten in real time. You're seeing red lines suddenly become very, very blurry.

Last Saturday, the Iranians launched a massive attack on Israel with over 300 drones and missiles. That's something that's never happened before. Iran and Israel have been fighting a shadow war since 1979, but they have never directly attacked each other's territory.

You've seen a lot of Israeli airstrikes on Iranian assets in Lebanon and in Syria. You've seen Israeli covert action inside Iran. You've seen Iranian-backed terrorist attacks on Israel, but never an actual attack from Iran into Israel. And now, you're seeing something in retaliation, most likely, that you've also never seen before, which is most likely a direct attack from Israel into Iran.

Now, I would imagine that both Iran and Israel are trying to calibrate their actions to avoid a wider war, which neither side really wants. But it may be very hard to do, because I'm not sure they have a great idea of what the new rules of the road are or how to prevent misunderstandings. But I would infer two things from the reports that we're seeing, Abby.

One is that if, in fact, Israel has been striking fairly recently, that's very early in the morning, right? So, I'd assume they're striking early in the morning in part to avoid casualties, to avoid killing a lot of Iranians, probably trying to target sites without causing mass casualties.

The other thing I would note is if these reports are accurate about explosions inside Iran, that suggests the Israeli airstrikes are getting through, which is not what happened with the Iranian airstrikes on Saturday.

When 99 percent of the Iranian projectiles were down, this suggests, obviously, that Iranian air defenses are not as good as the Israeli air defenses, and the Israelis have more potent air power than the Iranians. But where this goes from here, I think, remains very much undetermined. And now, just as on Saturday it was up to Israel, now it's really up to Iran.

PHILLIP: And look, I don't want to sound alarmist, but this is a serious moment. And as you pointed out, what we saw this weekend has never happened before. Now, we are in a moment of real uncertainty. The decision-making lies between Benjamin Netanyahu and an Iranian regime that has been accelerating its attacks on Israel.

You heard Barak Ravid talking there about what he's hearing from Israeli officials, that they think that this can end at a particular point. Do they have enough information to be confident of that? And if they are wrong, what are the consequences?

BOOT: Well, clearly they don't have enough information. You've seen Israel be wrong repeatedly in the last six months. They didn't anticipate the Hamas attack on October 7th. That took them completely by surprise.

They also more recently did not anticipate what would happen when they bombed this Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1st and killed three Iranian generals. The Israelis had no response, had no idea that the Iranian response would be to launch 300 drones and missiles at Israel. They expected that Iran would stay within kind of the rules of the game and have a much lower level response. But they didn't. Iran escalated.

Now, Israel feels compelled to escalate in turn. And so, you know, both sides are maybe hoping, okay, maybe we can turn it down eventually. But this could easily spiral out of control because, again, you've been showing the video yourself of the Iranian foreign minister threatening devastating responses should Israel attack Iran, which it certainly looks like they have done now.

PHILLIP: Are there any more levers available to the United States to cool this down? Well, I think President Biden has been doing his best and you would think that he would have a lot of credibility because it was actually on Saturday U.S. forces were defending Israel and shooting down actual missiles and drones that were headed to Israel.

So, that should buy a lot of goodwill. But clearly, the Israeli war cabinet was not listening to -- to President Biden. I assume they're now counting on the U.S. to protect Israel once again from any possible Iranian retaliation.


So, I would say that the U.S. certainly has some leverage, but it's obviously pretty limited.

PHILLIP: Yeah. And up until this point, it has not been enough to change the actions of Israel. They are a sovereign country, but they rely very heavily, as you pointed out, on the United States for protection and also for weaponry. Max, stand by for us. I want to go to Spider Marks. He's standing by reiterating the news here for folks who are tuning in right now.

Three explosions have been heard near an army base inside of Iran near the city called Isfahan. That is a very large city, the third largest in Iran. It's one where we know there is a nuclear base, but there is also a military base, as well. Spider Marks, tell us more about what the military capabilities are in that area. And if there was something targeted there, what could it be?

SPIDER MARKS, MAJOR GENERAL, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Clearly, you're going to find a military capability, primarily air defense, in the vicinity of these enrichment facilities. So, not surprising at all. And also, when you go back to the nuclear deal that was signed a number of years ago that the United States then invalidated and walked away from, there were conditions in that in that that prohibited unannounced inspections, which means the Iranians had the ability to do the enrichment and then transport or move that enrichment to a military facility.

In other words, right outside the gate into another compound with very short movement requirements, distribution requirements that what that might be difficult to detect. So, it's not surprising at all. And so going after an enrichment facility like that, ideally, if we certainly don't know what took place, but there will be a requirement to do some very thorough bomb damage assessment to make a determination of what the possible next steps are.

Look, if the Israelis wanted to achieve a result to degrade the Iranian nuclear progress, the development of this capability, there has to be an assessment of what they accomplished. If it was simply to describe a capability that the Iranians have, it's no mystery to the world that the Iranians can conduct military operations along multiple lines of effort simultaneously.

We see that right now, Hezbollah, Hamas efforts elsewhere in the region and then conducting this strike into Iran. I mean, this is quite amazing, not surprising entirely. The Israelis have this incredibly capable military force. So, if they're not sending a message, they're trying to achieve a result. We don't know what that result looks like. That needs to be determined before you determine what the next steps are going to be.

PHILLIP: All right, Major General Spider Marks, stand by again for us. We're going to go back to Alex Marquardt with some breaking news. Alex.

MARQUARDT: Yeah, Abby. I've just gotten confirmation from a U.S. official that Israel has indeed struck Iran tonight, that what we are seeing, this explosion or explosions around the city of Isfahan is indeed an Israeli attack against Iran.

This is the retaliation that we have thought may be coming for several days now, ever since Iran carried out that strike last weekend against Israel with those more than 300 drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

There are not too many details about the dimensions, the breadth of the Israeli strike tonight. But a U.S. official confirming to me just moments ago that what we are seeing is indeed Israel carrying out a strike against Iran. What we've been seeing from local reports, now multiple Iranian reports, official and semi-official, is explosions near the city of Isfahan, which is in central -- western central Iran.

One more thing that the U.S. official told me is that it is not believed to be against a nuclear facility. We've been talking about the city of Isfahan. It is one of Iran's most important. There is a significant nuclear facility there. My understanding from speaking with now multiple U.S. officials is that the targets that Israel had indicated that they would be going after in a counter-strike would not be nuclear.

One senior U.S. official also telling me that the targets would not be civilian. As we were just saying moments ago, Abby, the U.S. was expecting Israel to carry out a strike that was limited in scope, perhaps against military targets, but something that would be visible so as to tell the world this is Israel hitting back against Iran.

Of course, we've seen these images now for over the past hour. This is a very visible strike.


And now, we have this confirmation that this was indeed Israel that is attacking Iran. So major questions now, where we go from here. We have to get a much better sense. Indeed, Israel and the U.S. have to have a much better sense of what was struck, what the damage was done, in order to be able to try to predict how Iran might respond.

But we have gotten some very serious words from a whole range of Iranian officials over the course of the past few days, the latest of whom was this Iranian foreign minister in New York with our colleague Erin Burnett tonight, warning that if Israel were to attack Iran, that they would strike back, they would strike back hard, that they would expand their range of targets beyond just military, like last weekend, to include civilian, financial, and others, and that they could do so immediately.

One thing to note from the foreign minister's interview, he said that they would not be going after U.S. targets unless the U.S. were somehow directly involved. I was told very firmly by a U.S. official not too long ago that the U.S. certainly did not give the green light to this Israeli operation.

What we have heard all week long from senior administration officials is that they did not want Israel to carry out this counterattack. They wanted to take the win, so to speak, and essentially let last weekend's defense, that formidable defense of Israel, taking down 99 percent of what was fired at it, to essentially speak for itself, so as not to expand this conflict. Abby.

PHILLIP: And that certainly did not happen. Alex, thank you for bringing us that great reporting. Continue to stand by for us, and we'll get back to you as soon as you have more. I want to go to Director James Clapper, just to react there to what you heard Alex report.

This has been confirmed by a U.S. official to be an Israeli strike against Iran, but not an attack against nuclear facilities that we know are in that area, perhaps military facilities that are also in that area. What do you make of it?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, one issue that comes to mind here, Abby, for me is all of our analyses, or perhaps more accurately our speculation, seems to be premised on the assumption that both protagonists here, that is Israel and Iran, are attacking each other in the hopes of messaging each other, and that somehow these attacks are circumscribed and limited to convey a message.

I think we're rapidly, based on the information that Alex just discussed, that it looks like there was an attack, I think we're rapidly growing out of that phase, and that the escalation ladder is going to get harder and harder to control, and that the messaging phase is perhaps over. I take the Iranian officials, notably the foreign minister, at their word, and I don't think they're going to respond in kind, but they're going to respond with a larger attack that in their minds would be more effective than the first one.

PHILLIP: That's an ominous warning there, and I think that you may be right. We've been discussing, it's not clear that either side knows how this might end. Director Clapper, continue to stand by for us. Major Mike Lyons is with us, as well. Major Lyons, your reaction to the fact, according to Alex's sources, that there were non-nuclear targets that may have been on the receiving end of Israeli bombs here in the region?

LYONS: Well, they had to be followed up with intel, and they had to be important targets to what, again, General Mark said, you know, for why they attacked them, what was their reason behind them. Again, it's just too close to that facility in order to think that they wouldn't have to send a signal that they could go and get it. But air defense platforms, there's other air defense platforms that

could have attacked along that border. They could have been Republican Guard forces. They could have been other military units that the Israelis thought was high-value targets, and this was an opportunity to go after them.

But again, in most cases, they would have to take out multiple air defense platforms along the way, along that axis of attack, if they're especially going to put their own pilots in harm's way in order to conduct this kind of attack. So, we have to see. We'll get more information. But from my perspective, the why, I think, comes back to a warning to Iran that they will go after their nuclear facilities.

PHILLIP: All right. Major Lyons, stand by again. Joining me now is Robin Wright. She's a fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. Robin, you know this region, the conflicts here, the risk, as you heard Director Clapper say, of the escalation ladder being climbed up so rapidly that both parties cannot come down from it. What do you think are the consequences of that?


ROBIN WRIGHT, FELLOW, U.S. INSTITUTE FOR PEACE AND WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL: Well, Israel is clearly trying to demonstrate its military superiority, and it has done that effectively, whether it's in Damascus or now in Iran, especially if it's close to a nuclear facility. It may not take it out, but it is showing what its muscle is.

The big question, of course, is what Iran does. And we have to remember that it used only a small fraction of its arsenal. It has over 3000 ballistic missiles, and so it used somewhere around 10 percent. It has a lot of weaponry that it can unleash on Israel.

Now, the tragedy in all of this is I don't think either Israel or Iran wants the bigger war. Clearly, the United States has used its leverage to try to prevent the region from deteriorating into something that is, you know, no one can contain. One of the big questions, of course, is also what is Israel's long-term strategy? Is it seeking to prevent a nuclear capability, or is it trying to encourage or do things that lead eventually to some kind of regime change?

And I think Israel has proven its short-term effectiveness in taking out Iranian or Iranian proxy assets, its weapons depots, its military personnel. But it's not clear what its long-term strategy is. Iran, on the other hand, has a long game. It has proven that it is the inferior military power.

But it has built up over the last 42 years an incredible alliance in the region, a deadly military capability. And so, the danger is that this does enter a slippery slope, and we are into an open-ended phase, even though neither side wants it.

PHILLIP: Robin Wright, thank you very much for that. Max Boot is still with us, Max, the questions that Robin raised -- what are Israel's long-term goals here? And I don't need to remind anyone, there is a very significant conflict going on right now in Gaza that is taking up quite a lot of Israeli resources. But they're also trying to engage Iran, really, for the first time directly. So, where does this go from here?

BOOT: That's a great question, and that's not something I'm sure that Israeli leaders have necessarily thought through. I think the knock on Israel in recent years is they're very good tactically from a military standpoint. They can hit targets. They can kill people. They're a very effective military, but they have a hard time translating tactical military gains into long-term strategic gains.

And you're seeing that problem right now in the Gaza Strip, where they're doing a lot of damage, killing a lot of Hamas operatives, killing a lot of civilians. But how are they going to create a long- term peace in Gaza? They don't seem to have any concept of what happens after the guns fall silent. They don't have any idea of who's actually going to govern in Gaza.

And I kind of feel like they have a similar problem with Iran. They feel like, okay, we've been attacked. We have to show, don't mess with us, we're going to hit back. But where does it go from here? If Iran hits back, how do they prevent this larger war from breaking out, which is Robinson (ph). I think that's right.

Neither side really wants that larger war, but both sides are determined to show, you can't push me around. I have to establish my deterrence. Neither side, I don't think, has a long-term strategy here. And that's very dangerous, because emotions are involved, nationalism is involved, and a lot of weaponry is involved.

PHILLIP: And look, let's be honest, it's particularly dangerous for the state of Israel, which is like an island in the Middle East. And there's nowhere to turn if there is a broader conflict. So, at what point does this need to turn to a conversation about what is it going to take to move toward peace in Gaza and to de-escalate the tensions, not just with Iran, but with its proxies?

BOOT: Well, I think that's something Israel needs to think about very hard, because right now they're involved in a two-front war right now, at least two fronts, maybe three, depending on how you count. Because they have the war in Gaza, they have a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now they're starting a direct war with Iran. That's a lot. I mean, Israel is a very powerful military, but that's a lot of wars at once for one little country to handle.

PHILLIP: And it also suggests that perhaps the United States almost might inevitably be dragged into whatever happens there.

BOOT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you saw last week, I mean, U.S. forces were defending Israel. And since October 7th, there have been many Iranian-sponsored attacks on U.S. bases in the region, some of which have killed or wounded U.S. troops. So, yeah, absolutely, the United States is in the middle of it, because we're Israel's ally.

We're also the ally of some of the Arab states involved. So, we're trying to keep peace in the region, but it's becoming very hard to do. It's kind of like a referee trying to step between two guys who are flailing at each other, and you're going to get punched from both sides.

PHILLIP: When it comes to the conflict in Ukraine, President Biden has been very clear there are going to be limits to how involved the United States is. Do you think that there will be any limits when it comes to Israel?

BOOT: They know that remains to be seen. I mean, I think this is, Saturday was very unusual, not only in the direct Iranian attack, but also in the direct U.S. response. And of course, a lot of Ukrainians were saying, well, why isn't the U.S. defending us the way they're defending Israel?


But I think there is a logic here that the U.S. is desperately trying to prevent a wider war in the region. And so, you know, now the issue is, did Israel ignore U.S. warnings not to attack Iran? And if so, do we wind up defending Israel anyway from the inevitable Iranian counterattack?

PHILLIP: Max Boot, thank you very much for sticking with us all of this hour. And what we know at this hour, a U.S. official has now confirmed to CNN that Israel has struck inside of Iran. I'm Abby Phillip. Laura Coates will pick up our special coverage right now.