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Laura Coates Live

Israel Attacked Iran. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired April 18, 2024 - 23:00   ET



MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: 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?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Max Boot, thank you very much for sticking with us all of this hour. 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.

UNKNOWN (voice-over): This is CNN breaking new.

LAURA COATES, CNN HOST: Breaking new tonight out of Iran, where at just about 6:30 in the morning, a U.S. official telling CNN that Israel has launched a retaliatory strike against Iran.

Now, here's what we know. Three explosions reportedly heard in the northwest part of the Iranian city of Isfahan near a military base. Flashes seen in the sky over the city. Now, CNN cannot verify the authenticity of these videos, but they come as flights have been diverted over Iranian airspace. Iranian news media reported that Iran's air defense systems have now been activated across several regions.

Tonight's strike comes just hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel will make its own decisions when responding to Iran's unprecedented weekend airstrikes, most of which were intercepted. Iran launched that attack in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria earlier this month.

I want to bring in CNN chief national security correspondent Alex Marquardt. Alex, there is so much to be learned here. You have some brand-new reporting. What can you tell us?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Laura, I've heard just moments ago from a U.S. official confirming that what we have been seeing, these videos, these glows in the sky, that this is indeed an Israeli strike against Iran, that this is the retaliation by Israel that we have, frankly, been expecting over the course of the past few days in response to that Iranian attack last weekend, which targeted some 300 drones, ballistic and cruise missiles, at Israel, an unprecedented historic attack by Iran against Israel. Now, what we are seeing, according to a U.S. official who I spoke with just moments ago, this is Israel's response to that.

Now, we had been told, and indeed I'm being told again tonight, that the expectation by the U.S. from Israeli officials was that this retaliation would be limited in scope, and what that has been expected to mean is that it would look something like Israeli strikes against military targets, bases, areas where drones take off, where missiles were fired from, for example.

Marco Rubio, who is the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he tweeted just moments ago that Israel doesn't necessarily have to fly into Iranian airspace to target -- to target Iran on the ground. They can do so from Iraqi or Syrian airspace. So, it is highly possible that Israeli jets, Israeli drones, for example, left Israeli airspace, flying through Syria, then through Iraq, and either firing from Iraqi airspace or then crossing into Iranian airspace and carrying out those strikes.

One more thing in terms of that limited scope, Laura, I was also told that it was not expected that civilian targets or nuclear targets would be among the strikes that Israel was carrying out. That is very, very important to note because, of course, for years, Israel has said that Iran has every intention of building a nuclear weapon and has targeted, indeed, in other ways, in more covert ways, Iran's nuclear program. Isfahan, this city where we are now seeing explosions reported by Iranian news media, that does have a significant nuclear facility. But I'm told by two different American officials that it is not expected that Israel has gone after nuclear facilities inside Iran. Now this, Laura, is from Iran's Fars News Agency, a semi-official agency in Iran. They're saying that three explosions were heard near an army base where fighter jets are located. That is to the northwest of that city of Isfahan. You can see right there on the map in the western central part of Iran.

Air defenses were activated. And that is important to note because that does indicate that there was something coming at Iran from the sky, perhaps an obvious point. But we could have also been talking tonight about a cyberattack, special forces, more covert attack. But what appears to have happened is Israel firing at Iran.


It could have been drones. It could be missiles. It could be with Israeli fighter jets. But those defenses were activated in response, and this again, this is according to this Iranian news agency, to an object that is likely to be a drone. So, it is believed that one of the targets may have been an army radar and that several office buildings lost their windows in that area.

But important as we gather more information, Laura, this is, according to one U.S. official, the Israeli retaliation for that Iranian attack last weekend that the U.S. has feared. The U.S. has been urging Israel not to carry out any kind of strike, telling Israel to -- quote, unquote -- "take the win," to recognize that they were able to fend off a massive Iranian attack last weekend. That was in response, I should say, to Israel's attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. So, the U.S. has essentially been saying, it's even now, guys. Please don't attack Iran. Please don't escalate the situation.

And I'm told by a senior U.S. official that earlier today, Israeli officials did notify the United States that they would be attacking Iran in the coming days. So, the U.S. was given a warning that this could happen soon, and that is what appears to be unfolding right now. Laura?

COATES: Alex, in the coming days, and here it has now begun. And as you mentioned, the "take the win" sentiment, largely because the Iron Dome intercepted what, 95 or 99% of the drones and missiles that were there. I would note that Iran did provide some warning and that made some question whether it was really a performative act they were engaged in or one that was intended to warn in a different capacity.

I want to bring in CNN White House correspondent Priscilla Alvarez. Priscilla, has there been any reaction from the White House tonight?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Laura, the White House has been largely quiet tonight, but you can imagine that they are assessing this as well, looking at all of this footage in real time and also their intelligence.

Of course, this has been at top of mind for the White House and for President Biden, who does not want to see this conflict grow any wider in the region. When he had a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend following that attack by Iran, he said that he should think carefully and strategically about next steps, and also noted that the United States would not be involved in any counterstrike against Iran. Of course, again, the focus there being that this is already a very volatile region and not wanting to see it escalate any further.

Now, we should note that there were a lot of -- there was quite a bit of movement today here at the White House when it comes to Iran. Of course, they announced sanctions against Iran in an attempt to cut off supplies and further isolate the country.

And then also, in addition to that, there was a meeting between senior U.S. officials and Israeli officials about last weekend's attack, but also about the potential invasion of Rafah by Israel. So, clearly, the White House has been monitoring all of this and keeping very close tabs as they seek to try to contain the risk here of a broader regional conflict.

But we have also seen since the war in Gaza that there have been public grips between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was unclear whether the Israeli prime minister would take the president's advice moving forward. I think that is still a big question tonight as to what conversations were had and whether this was in alignment with where Israel told the U.S. would -- they would be.

So, a lot of questions here tonight still about how this is received and how they move forward, and whether the U.S. does get involved again if there is retaliation another time by Iran after this attack by Israel. So, still a lot of open questions, but the White House clearly monitoring all of this. As of now, though, no statement -- no official statement from the White House.

COATES: Priscilla, thank you. We're going to continue to rely on you for your reporting. I want to bring in CNN's Nic Robertson. He's in Jerusalem. Nic, what has been the response in the region?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Well, what we're hearing from Iranian media, adding to the details that we've heard already about drones being shot down, it appears that media in Iran, both the sort of local media there and the semi-state media, are playing down these drones that have been shot down.

One media is talking about them as small quad helicopters, these very small drones. Another media is indicating that the Isfahan nuclear facility is secure. These again are details that are just coming in. We need to run down more information on them.

[23:09:51] But I think what they are indicative at the moment of is a sense that's being portrayed by the media in Iran to the people of Iran, that whatever has happened in the skies above Isfahan overnight and near this military base in Isfahan overnight, knowing that it has now been confirmed that Israel did strike inside Iran, U.S. officials telling us that, that from an Iranian perspective, there is an effort to minimize it, potentially even try to ridicule it.

So, what does that mean? If the media in Iran is doing it, it tends to imply that that's the tack approach that the government may also take. Look, we need to take a beat and wait and see what they actually say, how the government actually responds at the moment. We haven't heard from any senior Iranian government officials since the reports of these incidents.

And over the night since the air defense systems were activated in Iran in the early hours of the morning, we've been tracking here, I would say, for the last three hours or so, different reports about unexplained explosions, noises, changes of flight patterns of commercial aircraft over Iran.

It does seem to be coalescing down to -- the state-run media is only reporting and confirming about the explosions around Isfahan, this city, major city, a few hundred miles south of Tehran, that has military bases and also an important uranium enrichment facility. So, at first take, this seems to be being minimized.

But I would caveat that with the fact that Isfahan airport is shut, Tehran airport is shut, another major airport in Iran is shut, the western airspace in Iran is closed. So, at the moment, Iran seems to be, in terms of what's in its skies, is taking extreme precautions and putting commercial aircrafts, taking them out of the sky. Now, I think one point we should -- it's maybe worth bringing to bear on why such a big area of the skies are being cleared. It would be from the west of Iran if Israeli fighter jets were to fly into Iran to take part in strikes. Now, we're only hearing about drones in the skies above Iran at the moment.

However, knowing that Iran switched on its air defense systems in the early hours of the morning, we only have to think back to early January 2020, shortly after the United States targeted Qasem Soleimani, that senior figure in the Quds Force, killed him in a drone strike while he was in Iraq.

Well, a few days later, when Iranian airspace and air defenses were on heightened alert, they mistakenly shot down a civil passenger aircraft in the skies above Tehran. So, the fact that they are closing airspace may just be a protection for the civilian aircraft because they don't want to make a mistake again and shoot down a civilian aircraft, mistaking it for a potential fighter jet.

COATES: Really important reporting. We'll continue to go to you as well. Important note that on February 26th of just this year, a nuclear watchdog report did suggest that Iran has been enriching uranium to 60%. It's an important figure because weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to 90% to make a bomb.

And just earlier on our own airwaves, the Iranian foreign minister was speaking to CNN, this is before the strikes, before the strikes, and said, in case the Israeli regime embarks on adventurism again and takes an action against the interests of Iran, the next response from us will be immediate and at a maximum level, it will be decisive. That was the Iranian foreign minister speaking to CNN earlier this evening.

I want to bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann. Oren, you reported in the region for a very long time. What is Israel's message now with this strike?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Large part of that depends on the damage on the ground, and we'll get a better sense of that in the coming hours and days. But if the initial reports coming out of Iran are correct and it is fairly minor or relatively small damage, then the message from Israel is simply to point out that they have the capability to do this. It's not just Iran that can fire hundreds of miles and hit Israel. Israel has the capability to do that exact same thing right back to Iran.

Isfahan is an interesting choice there because of the nuclear facilities. At least in the initial reports, it doesn't seem like that's what Israel was going after in this strike. But it's a clear message to Iran that if this escalation continues and gets out of control, it is well within Israel's capabilities to hit Iran's nuclear facilities. That looks like the message being sent here.


Of course, now the question, does Iran follow through on the promise made by the foreign minister and others to retaliate for this attack and fire back? Is Iran going to fire more ballistic missiles and drones at Israel, and what happens in that case?

The U.S. position is clear. The U.S. will try to help intercept any launches as early as possible that are targeting Israel. It's the other countries and the other partners in the region that are the question mark here. They participated. For example, Jordan intercepting foreign objects in its airspace over its territory and participating in the interception of that Iranian attack several days ago. Do they do that again? Are they willing to take that step? Now that they see that this is Israel's retaliation, do they step out of that

It's a much bigger task for the U.S. if they have to defend the airspace on their own. That's one of the key questions here. We haven't seen the Pentagon comment at this point. We haven't heard a public statement from military officials. But just like the White House, just like Israel, the Pentagon obviously watching the situation there very closely. Laura?

COATES: Oren, we've now seen both countries try to demonstrate their capability to reach one another, not using a proxy country to facilitate the launching of missiles or drones. Of course, we know that the president of the United States earlier in the week said that they would not participate in an offensive reaction to Iran. We'll continue to watch what's happening.

I want to bring in CNN military analyst Colonel Cedric Leighton. Colonel, U.S. officials telling CNN that one of the targets is believed to be an army radar. You have very deep experience in Iran and in this region. How do you assess this attack?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think it could be several things, Laura. A radar site is a perfect area to go after because that -- once you hit the radar site, that blinds the forces that are using that radar picture for their activities. So, it's a perfect site for the Israelis to go after.

The other thing to keep in mind is we've been talking about airfields, and one of the reasons that a lot of the airports have been shut down, as Nic was mentioning in his reporting, is because what Iran does is it doubles the use of their civilian airports as also being air force bases for the Iranian air force.

So, in the case of Isfahan, the air base is co-located with the international airport in Isfahan, and it's the home to Iran's fleet of F-14 fighters, which they had acquired during the time of the Shah. So those aircraft are, of course, quite old, antiquated. They've since been upgraded in some ways using Iranian capabilities and other capabilities, but they probably pose a very limited threat to the Israelis.

The other thing to keep in mind, Laura, is that when it comes to the nuclear facilities in and around Isfahan, the one that's really important is the Natanz nuclear facility, and that is 120 kilometers or about 70 miles away from Isfahan. So, if you strike the area around Isfahan, you are not going to be striking the city of Isfahan. That is, you're not going to be striking Natanz, but you are telling them, as we've talked about, you are telling everybody that you can reach this area and you can, in fact, eliminate that threat or at least attack that threat if you need to do so.

COATES: Colonel Leighton, interestingly, compared to the signal that Iran sent by being able to reach Israel, they issued a warning beforehand, and the Iron Dome was able to intercept the missiles, the drones. That was suggesting why some were suggesting to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to -- quote, unquote -- "take the win." What does it say that Iran could not defend against this attack?

LEIGHTON: Well, for one thing, Iran does not have anything similar to the Iron Dome. So, its air defenses are fairly antiquated in comparison to the Israeli air defenses. They're not ineffective, but they are not as effective as the Israeli air defense system, which is highly sophisticated, one of the best in the world.

So that is really why you see this difference and, of course, we'll have to wait for the battle damage assessments to come out and to get some idea of exactly what was hit and how effective the Israeli strikes were.

But it seems like they were able to do this pretty much with impunity, and it tells us that there are basically holes in the Iranian air defense system and that the Israelis can take advantage of them if they feel the need to do so.

COATES: Really important to get your insight. We'll continue to lean on you, Cedric Leighton, retired Air Force colonel.

I want to bring in "Bloomberg" senior editor Bobby Ghosh to the conversation. Bobby, we spoke earlier in the week about anticipating this exact reality. What do you think Iran will do next?

BOBBY GHOSH, SENIOR EDITOR, BLOOMBERG: Well, Laura, a threshold now has crossed, and we are -- we are in sort of unknown territory. For a long time, these two countries have been at a low-intensity war, but I feel like now that the gloves have come off. Iran's response is unpredictable.


We know the different weapons that it has at its disposal. We saw a demonstration of what it can do over the last weekend when it fired over 300 missiles and drones into Israeli territory. Very few of them actually managed to make it through those defenses that the colonel was talking about. But Iran showed that it has the capacity to fire a very large number of projectiles into Israeli territory.

We also know that Iran has the capacity to attack Israel through its proxies in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, as well as from the Houthis in Yemen. So, we know what both sides are capable of. Until now, it has been a question of just how far each is prepared to go. But just as we were discussing earlier in the week, with this sort of escalation of risk-taking, there's always a chance that the next step up is going to be the step too far. I feel that tonight, with Israel launching and successfully striking Iranian targets within Iran, we've reached that stage where we're now into an area of darkness where things can get very grim very quickly.

COATES: And what's the danger of now meeting this particular moment of a broader escalation? Are you suggesting that there is some point of no return that would involve others in the region?

GHOSH: Well, that has been the fear of the Biden administration throughout, which has been -- which has been why it has tried very hard for weeks now, and especially in the last 48 and 72 hours, it has tried very, very hard to restrain Iraq -- I beg your pardon -- Israel, from responding to Iran's latest attack.

Now that Israel has sort of essentially brushed aside American concerns and gone ahead and made this attack, yes, I am concerned that we now are in a -- we've now reached a stage where what comes next is very, very hard to predict.

The Iranians are trying to play down the attack, but it's nighttime. It is --it's a little hard to know the extent of the damage. I'm not so sure that if the damage is indeed substantial, I'm not sure Iran will be able to conceal that for very long.

And there's also the question of national pride, particularly from the hardliners of the Iranian right who control that country. They will feel like they have to respond, just as the hard right in Israel felt after Friday's attack that they had to respond. We're now in the realm of extreme positions on both sides coming to the fore, becoming the dominant position on both sides.

COATES: Bobby Ghosh, thank you so much. I want to reference and play right now what the Iranian foreign minister told CNN's Erin Burnett just earlier tonight.


HOSSEIN AMIR-ABDOLLAHIAN, IRAN MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (through translator): Our response to the Israeli regime was limited and stayed within a minimum of frameworks, whereas we could have given a much harsher response to the Israeli regime. Following that, we announced that this response is within the framework of legitimate defense according to international laws.

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


COATES: Very daunting words. It will be immediate, at a maximum level, it will be decisive. I want to bring in CNN global affairs analyst Kim Dozier. Kim, the foreign minister, you've heard the words he has spoken, that it would be immediate. How does the United States now go about managing what has obviously now been elevated to the next level?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: One of the scary things that we've been talking about this evening is the fact that the Iranians are closing the airspace and closing all those different airports because they could be doing that to keep civilian aircraft safe or they could be doing that to prepare for immediate retaliation, which is why at this point, I imagine U.S. diplomats, western diplomats, are reaching out to anyone who has Iran's number to say, we've got to stop this now, we're going to try to hold Israel back.


Friends of Iran try to hold them back because this is something that can tumble right down that escalation ladder, as we've been talking about, and lead to something really dire and all out back and forth between the two and a decision by Iran to go nuclear. Iran's nuclear facilities -- I mean, Israel can try to strike them and they have struck some in the past, but they need bunker busters to hit the most sensitive parts of the sites, and only the U.S. has that.

So, we could tumble into a much more conventional war that pulls in the U.S., and Iraq doesn't like that all this is happening from its territory or over its airspace. So, you get a lot of countries caught in between, and that's why there's power in that. That's when people will hopefully, perhaps Russia, perhaps China, step in and say, okay, this is going too far.

COATES: Here with me -- thank you for that reporting. Here with me now, Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and also retired Army major, Mike Lyons. Gentlemen, thank you for being here.

We have heard a lot about this capability versus actual damage. How do you see this result, knowing that both nations now have been able to reach the other's actual territory? But there's a distinction here. The Iron Dome was able to intercept at least 99%. This has now reached Iran, although we don't yet know the damage.

MIKE LYONS, RETIRED U.S. ARMY: Well, first of all, there was no allies on the side of Iran protecting them, as was on the side of Israel. It was part of that miraculous solution, frankly. I mean, to shoot 99% of those rockets, 300 rockets coming towards your country, is nothing short of a miracle. It was a tremendous military accomplishment.

So, Iran does not have the same air defense capabilities. They likely were on high alert. They would -- they would probably give it their best shot, but they just don't have the same capability.

So, where this is escalating now is Iran gets violated. The Israelis hit, actually, their targets. Like, you know, the why behind the target still remains. Was it to get close to the nuclear facilities? Was it to destroy aircraft or missiles that were possibly launched from that location on the attack? Was it, again, to go after air defense systems that they want to take out now that will help them in the future?

So, again, I think it just shows that from a deterrence perspective, it's back on -- the ball is back on the side of Israel. They have much more military capability.

COATES: So, we don't know, in terms of talking about the actual areas, whether it was a miss or a message that was being sent. As our earlier reporting talks about, that the range of targets never specified in precise terms, but nuclear and civilian locations were not in the category of the types of information they were going to try to carry out.

When you hear this, Max, and see the potential for escalation, we do know that the United States, according to our reporting, had some notice that it was coming in the days. Does that have an impact on the United States' need to involve themselves or are we still in a watchful position?

BOOT: Well, clearly, President Biden was arguing that Israel should not stage a retaliation, take the win from the fact that 99% of the Iranian attack was foiled on Saturday night. But that wasn't good enough for the Israeli War Cabinet because this was an unprecedented direct attack on Israel from Iran. So, they felt compelled to show that Israel, in turn, could strike against Iran, as we just heard.

Of course, it looks like the Israeli attack is getting through, whereas the Iranian attack did not get through last Saturday. But this is -- you know, as everybody has been saying, I think this is an extraordinarily dangerous escalation, tit-for-tat. We don't know what the next step is going to be.

But Iran certainly has options to retaliate, including Hezbollah in Lebanon with an estimated 150,000 missiles and rockets poised just over Israel's border. Very, very dangerous situation. And ultimately, at the end of the day, I don't see how Israel defeats Iran militarily. I also don't see how Iran defeats Israel militarily. There has to be more of a diplomatic and political solution to this crisis.

I think from Israel's standpoint, you know, last week, when Iran was attacking Israel, all of a sudden, the world, after having turned on Israel for the violence of its attack in Gaza, the world rallied around Israel. Israel had tremendous cooperation from Jordan and other Arab states. I think that's something that Israel should try to build on.

And really, the way to deal with the Iranian threat, I think, long term from the Israeli perspective, is to draw closer to these Sunni- Arab states, to get the deal with Saudi Arabia, back on for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel.


That would be a much more massive win for Israel than a random strike on some target in Iran. But clearly, that's where we are. We're in this military tit-for-tat game right now. COATES: You know, I don't get the impression just from the conversations we've been having this evening where you've got a national pride issue from hardline right in Iran, that there is a potential to conceal the damage, to build perhaps propaganda or a response. This doesn't strike me as anything that would lead to a so- called draw, that we can both return home now. I've reached your territory. You've reached mine. It also does suggest that neither side is looking to heed the warnings to retreat.

LYONS: Yeah. What's the definition of backing down? Israel looks at Iran as an existential threat, not only that country, but Hezbollah and what's going on in Gaza and all that. They're surrounded. They've been surrounded by enemies since they started as a country.

And you heard BBC (ph) back October 7th that there's time for peace and a time for war. Maybe that war cabinet is calculating that this is the time for war. Maybe they do think -- you know, to Max's point, maybe they do think they can defeat Iran militarily. Those are the kind of decisions that government officials make, and then whether history shows they're right or wrong.

But in this case, in this particular case, the element of surprise was on the side of Israel. You know, Iran should have known something was likely going to come. We also don't know what else happened, if there had been a cyberattack. I mean, we've only seen one layer of potential warfare that's taking place right now. So, there are other still courses of action that Israel could have taken. We just don't know what they've done.

COATES: That's a really important point. It's also a concern because even that conversation earlier tonight that you heard from the Iranian foreign minister, I mean, he has set the stage to perhaps manage expectations among his own population, talking about should Israel engage in certain behavior, that it would be -- the next response would be immediate. It would be at a maximum level. It would be decisive. Is it possible that these could be the words of a paper tiger?

BOOT: Anything is possible. But I would take Iranian threats pretty seriously. I mean, they have pretty serious military capabilities, and they have a whole network of terrorist proxies throughout the region. So, they certainly can do more than what they did last Saturday, even though that was a pretty massive attack in and of itself.

And I think Israel, they clearly have -- Israel clearly has the most capable military in the region. But they are also in a very dangerous spot because they are facing a two or three-front war right now. They're still fighting in Gaza. They're facing hostilities with Hezbollah across their northern border. And now, they're getting engaged in a direct war with Iran.

That's -- I mean, again, Israel, very capable state, very powerful military, but that's a lot for them to handle, and they are going to be relying on help from the U.S. and others to try to shield them from some of this danger. So, I think it's imperative that Prime Minister Netanyahu pay closer attention to what President Biden is telling him because Israeli security really depends upon the U.S. alliance, I think, more so now than ever.

COATES: Interestingly enough, John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations, on April 14, the night of the attack, says that Israel should attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Now, we do not know the extent of the damage or the location. We did hear from Colonel Cedric Leighton that the area -- this was not at the precise location of a nuclear plant.

But we also know from that nuclear watchdog report back in February that Iran was enriching uranium to 60%, that weapons-grade uranium needs to be enriched to 90% to make a bomb. That's, you know, a differential that is quite significant, but still much closer to 90 than it is to zero. When you think about the timing and the advice from competing notions, what's your reaction?

LYONS: Well, first of all, it's very difficult. It would be very difficult for Israel to attack militarily the nuclear facilities there. It's not impossible but --

COATES: Why is that?

LYONS: It's just so dispersed. And again, you look at all the different components of how you make a nuclear bomb. You first have to mine uranium, you convert it into yellow cake, and then it's enhanced at a certain facility, and that's Natanz and these other places. This place is more of a conversion facility. It takes nuclear yellow cake and then it turns it into a different factor that sends it to that facility that actually creates the bomb.

So, there's multiple different targets. They would have to attack across wide fronts, all across the country, and also have the knowledge. You can't take the knowledge out of Iran. They have that capability now. Different versus when Israel attacked Osirak in 1981, for example, or the Syrian military, when they had a nuclear facility. They brought in people from North Korea and other places to build that for them.

Well, in this case, the intellectual capital sits inside of Iran. So, to say that militarily you're going to take out that capability just does not make sense.

COATES: It's an important point. And also, just for people to know about the nuclear facilities in Iran, they were built with Chinese assistance. They opened back in 1984.


The Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center, as we're talking about, is Iran's largest nuclear research complex. It employs about 3,000 scientists, to the point about the institutional knowledge we're talking about. And it also is a multipurpose research center that has long been suspected of being the center of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program.

So, I want to bring in now former Middle East negotiator for the State Department, Aaron David Miller. Aaron, the Iranian media says the strike was carried out via drone, not missiles. What do you make of that distinction, if Israel did indeed use drones and not missiles in this retaliation?

AARON DAVID MILLER, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT MIDDLE EAST NEGOTIATOR: I doubt if the Israelis used drones. I think the Iranians are trying to manage, if not trivialize and ridicule, the character and nature of the Israeli attack.

Look, I mean, step back just for a minute, I don't want to trivialize this moment. When two adversaries that are committed, literally, for whom this is an existential trouble, conflict, change the rules of the game, you have an extremely serious situation.

But the reality, Laura, is that we're in a kind of an information Bermuda Triangle here. We really don't know what the precise motives of the Israelis were for conducting this attack. We don't know whether or not this -- we're still in a messaging or signaling phase.

In other words, the Israelis had to respond. They had to show technical mastery by conducting this attack at Isfahan. They did not presumably go after a nuclear facility or a research facility. Some radar, as Cedric said, or military installations or drone installations, unclear. And we really don't know right now what the nature of the Iranian response is going to be.

I think within the next 24 hours, we're going to have a pretty good sense of whether or not we are climbing up the escalatory ladder to something the Middle East has never experienced before, which is a regional confrontation involving Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, an exchange of ballistic missiles, sustained strikes on the part of the Israelis against Iranian conventional, maybe unconventional sites, Hezbollah opening up with its 150,000 repository arsenal of high-trajectory weapons, which would lead to the death of hundreds of Israelis, the Israelis would preempt or counter destroying Lebanese infrastructure, thousands of Lebanese would be killed.

It's almost impossible to imagine, to add to this, that the United States would be able to stay on the sidelines. I'm not predicting that. I don't know where we're going on this one. But I think, clearly -- I tweeted out, and I don't want to trivialize, but I get this sense, you know, in the "Wizard of Oz," as Dorothy said to Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

And even if you get through this phase without a major Iranian retaliation, the reality is Israel and Iran are going to be locked in this competitive struggle. There's no solution to the problem of Iranian proxies. There's no solution to the fact that Iran is a nuclear weapons threshold state. And this relationship is going to be hanging over the region and perhaps the international community like some sort of sword of Damocles.

It's not a good day, but I'm not predicting and I don't think we should rush to the conclusion that we're really now on the cusp of a major, major confrontation.

COATES: Really important. Thank you so much. I have some new reporting in as well from our own Barak Ravid. He said this, that he -- that Israel notified the United States in advance, the official telling him, that we were not surprised.

I want to bring in CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. David, what is your reaction to that new reporting from our own analyst Barak Ravid and reporting this, that the United States had been notified in advance?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It wouldn't surprise me because earlier today, there was a meeting between Jake Sullivan and some senior visiting Israelis. It dealt with both this retaliatory strike and the U.S. advice to the Iranians to, as President Biden put it, "take the win," and then moved on to discuss Gaza with a larger group, particularly the question of military activity around Rafah, Israeli activity.

But I think the big significance of today is twofold. First of all, the Iranians broke the taboo last Saturday against direct strikes from Iran to Israel.


And the Israelis responded tonight, assuming this is indeed what we think it is, with an Israeli direct strike on Iran. Now, that doesn't mean it was very damaging. We don't know, and we won't know till the sun comes up and commercial and spy satellites can go over these sites.

From that, we will know right away because everybody has mapped these sites within a quarter of an inch, whether or not this was nuclear or not. But the early reporting that Alex is hearing, Alex Marquardt, the early reporting I'm hearing is that it appears not to be nuclear.

But by doing this in Isfahan, the message the Israelis send is pretty clear, that unlike the Iranians who couldn't land anything in Israel, the Israelis can attack in Isfahan, and that leaves the Iranians wondering about what's just to the north, which is their most important single facility, the Natanz nuclear enrichment site.

It's not very deep underground. And the Israelis, of course, have practiced many times what it would take to take it out. It was the site of the Olympic Games, where Stuxnet attack, cyberattack, more than a decade ago, and I think the message the Israelis are sending is we can reach it if we want to.

COATES: David, I want you to respond as well to what our earlier guest just intimated, and the idea that he doubted that Israel used missiles -- drones instead of missiles, but it was largely perhaps Iran trying to minimize and be dismissive, maybe even mock and ridicule Israel's capabilities. It might not be obvious to the audience as to why the use of drones versus the missiles would be the subject of ridicule.

SANGER: Well, missiles would have a bigger impact right away. If the drones managed to hit something like an ammunitions dump, it obviously could result in a large explosion. But there's a limited amount of punch you can pack, even with the explosives on a drone. And so, it sorts of depends on what the target was along the way.

The drones move really slowly. And as we learned last Saturday night, that gives people an opportunity to go take them out. But, you know, we're not going to know until we see the nature of the hole or the strike or whatever it is that we'll end up seeing there.

We don't even have any official confirmation, certainly from the Israelis or others, that they've done a strike. But American officials seem to have been prepared for this and seem to be prepared for it to be looking at non-nuclear sites. So, we'll just have to know when the sun comes up.

COATES: I mean, the world has been urging restraint for fear of turning, obviously, this conflict into a major regional war. If Iran responds quickly or -- his words were immediately at a maximum level, it would be decisive, according to the foreign minister, as he told our own Erin Burnett earlier today before this attack. Are we on the precipice of that very thing tonight?

SANGER: What you're on the precipice is people misreading signals. I mean, we've seen that happen a lot, Laura, in different military activity. I mean, you know, on paper, you work this out for sort of escalate what in the -- in the term of art is escalation dominance, each country trying to figure out how they go up the escalation ladder and make it clear they're the dominant player.

But what seems to work for the Israelis may not work for the Iranians and vice versa. And the Israelis have already made one miscalculation here. When they did the initial strike against the seven IRGC officers, they thought that the Iranians would take this the way they've taken others, and didn't really anticipate that they would see the kind of response they saw last Saturday night.

So somewhat embarrassed by that and also determined to show their escalation dominance, they've gone and presumably done whatever they've done here. We don't know the extent of it yet. As you heard earlier, could have included cyber, could have included attacks elsewhere. It's going to take us a day or two to sort all of that out, maybe even longer if they're hard to see attacks like cyberattacks.

But the chance that the signal you intend to say -- to send is not the one that's received is pretty high in situations like this.

COATES: Important point, including the idea, I think, we heard earlier today, this notion of being in an informational Bermuda Triangle as we wait to have --


COATES: -- all the information.

[23:45:05] I want to bring in Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on Iran's nuclear program. Thank you for being here. CNN is learning that that target was not nuclear, but it is certainly close to a major nuclear facility. So, what is the proximity of this attack to that facility mean to Iran tonight?

MARK DUBOWITZ, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES, IRAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM EXPERT: Well, there are two major facilities. One is actually in Isfahan, which is a uranium conversion facility. That's where Iran has a central process of converting yellow cake to uranium fluoride (ph). It's very important because that is then enriched.

Also, the highly-enriched stockpiles are actually contained in this Isfahan fabrication plant. So, Iran's highly-enriched material, which is used to be converted into weapons-grade uranium, is in Isfahan, and then 120 kilometers away is the Natanz enrichment facility where the next essential stage towards weapons-grade uranium takes place.

So, this is a symbolic message to the Iranians. We can hit your nuclear facilities, but also, we can penetrate your air defenses and you are defenseless.

COATES: That's a striking notion. And I wonder, based on what the Iranian foreign minister has said, I mean, certainly if the symbolism is not lost on you or any of us, it most certainly is not lost on the Iranian government. How do you think they intend to respond? Is this bluster, his threats of it being immediate, a maximum level and decisive, or is there some meat on that bone?

DUBOWITZ: Well, depending on -- we're getting conflicting reports. I mean, some reports that are actually playing down the nature and severity and strategic messaging of the Israeli strike. So, we'll see what the response is.

The other thing that I find interesting is if perhaps they did actually strike Iranian fighter jets in an air base, there would be some interesting symmetry. It would almost be poetic because the Iranians tried, with their barrage of missiles and drones, to strike an Israeli air force base in Nevatim and destroy Israeli F-35 fighter jets.

So, it would be a certain amount of symmetry if the Israelis then turned around, penetrated air defenses successfully, and destroyed Iranian fighter jets on the runway. I think there's a certain amount of symbolism and symmetry that I think people would find interesting and perhaps even in some respects amusing.

COATES: And through the eyes of the Iranians, highly problematic. It seems to be quite a blow if they were not able to accomplish that, which was done to them just days later. I wonder about this informational void that we're in right now, given that there are perhaps efforts to downplay the impact of Israel's attack in the region, the idea of wondering if they're going to really back up the words they've said. Is the world really at the mercy of Iran to give the information that has resulted or do we have the ability to rely on these commercial or spy satellites to assess independent of what Iran tells the world?

DUBOWITZ: Yeah, I have no doubt over the coming day or days we'll find out more about exactly what happened. But I really do actually want to emphasize something that I think has not been discussed enough, and that is how vulnerable Iran may be if its air defenses don't work, because it's not just the nuclear sites, it's leadership assets, It's the headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the refineries and pipelines and ports.

And so what Iran has done is it has ringed their valuable assets with air defenses. If they've just discovered today that their air defenses don't work, that is certainly a degree of vulnerability. They must be giving pause to the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, and his Revolutionary Guards. If that's the case, their retaliatory decisions must be informed by that vulnerability. And they may be careful. They may decide to downplay it and stand down.

COATES: Does that mean that the world would now perhaps view Iran as less of a formidable threat in the region if they truly are that vulnerable?

DUBOWITZ: Look, I mean, I've always said that, you know, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not 10 feet tall. This is not a superpower. This is not the United States facing off against the Soviet Union. You know, we did that with thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at our cities.

Thank God, right now, Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons, though they're close. I mean, 60% highly-enriched uranium is 97% of what they need to get to 90% enriched-uranium. So, they're very close. One must take note of that. They are a stone's throw from having nuclear weapons. But I think the Israelis are now demonstrating that they are willing to go after Iran's nuclear weapons program.


And they have capabilities that may surprise the Iranians and surprise all of us. They've certainly been working on this for many, many years. I think it has always been said to me by senior Israeli officials, if we don't surprise you when we go after those nuclear facilities, then we will fail. And so, this may be an early demonstration of some new capabilities that Israel has and that the Iranians were not aware of.

COATES: Thank you so much for your insight. I want to bring back CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger. David, President Biden had told Israel not to strike Iran. And here we are. So what position is President Biden in now?

SANGER: Well, essentially, Laura, he's in the position he has been in in Gaza, which is repeatedly telling Bibi Netanyahu that it would be his best advice for the Israelis to not strike back or not strike in a certain way.

In Gaza, the issue and the concern has been all about humanitarian losses by dropping 1,000 and 2,000-pound bombs and other strikes in populated areas. Here, he was basically saying to the prime minister, hey, don't let your ego get in the way here, take the win that came from the fact that none of the Iranian missiles actually hit any significant targets.

It was one tragic casualty of a young girl. But by and large, it was a failed effort by the Iranians. So, sort of just take that as the win. Clearly, the prime minister felt that he could not do that.

COATES: Why was that? Why is that, David, do you think, that that was the issue and the reason? Is it something responsive to the people of Israel who would want a different response? Is it setting the stage for something later?

SANGER: I suspect, Laura, and I don't -- I can't crawl into his mind. I suspect that it comes out of the Israeli view that you never can strike Israel and not suffer something back. Right? That has been their retaliatory doctrine for some time. They felt that even doing something of a cyber nature alone or something you wouldn't see wouldn't send the message sufficiently to the leadership.

Now, maybe, as you just heard before from Mark Dubowitz, that it's entirely possible that they were demonstrating some new capabilities. But if they were going to go after the nuclear program, believe me, I think we would have known it tonight because we would have seen it in multiple different sites. And while we don't know yet the extent of what happened, the early report suggests that wasn't it.

But here's my longer-term concern. The Iranians have, as you reported earlier, been enriching at 60%, which is just below bomb-grade uranium. And for reasons that have to do with physics, not politics, that puts them only days or a week or so away from being able to produce at 90%, which would be bomb-grade. They have been backing off on the 60% production or so, I'm told by the U.N. inspectors who still get in there on occasion. And now, they could well reverse that in a way to sort of threaten that they're going to go all the way to 90%.

I think that could be the escalatory move because I think the Israelis and perhaps the United States would feel if they're producing bomb- grade uranium, they would have to go after this We don't know that they've -- that they're going to take that step.

They've always come short of it. The amazing thing about the Iranian program is it has taken them longer to get to a bomb than any nation on Earth. And that has been deliberate. They have been using this as a political measure on the on the lever here as well as one of physics. They are not racing for the bomb. This could change that view.

COATES: Thank you. I want to go right quick to my panel for a second because I know you're champing at the bit to react to what he has just said. What is your reaction to that?

LYONS: So, Laura, first of all, the reason why Israel responded is because deterrence is based on offensive capability, not defensive capability. What Israel did defensively was tremendous. But from their mind and their mindset, it didn't restore deterrence. All it did is show Iran that it could protect itself if that could happen.

Deterrence is based on your capability to respond and in such a manner that would, you know, wipe out or create such a hardship for the other person. So, that's why, in their minds, they didn't feel deterrence was done just because they've taken the win. They had to show offensive capability like they did tonight.

COATES: What's the risk of that, Max, if any?

BOOT: Well, it's a huge risk, Laura, because we are rewriting the rules of the road in the Middle East in real time.


We're seeing red lines erased. Up until last Saturday, Iran had never attacked Israel directly, even though those two countries have been locked in the shadow war since 1979. And now, within a few days of Iran attacking Israel directly, the reports are that Israel has attacked Iran directly.

Again, we don't know what's going to happen now, but this is a completely different strategic landscape from the one that we were familiar with just a few weeks ago, the one that the Israelis thought, you know, when they attacked the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed these Iranian generals, they didn't think that Iran was going to go and attack Israel.

Now the, you know, the Israelis are hoping that the Iranians don't counterattack, but they very well might. So, we don't know where this is going to go because this is a new Middle East that we're seeing, and it's a more dangerous place.

COATES: I want to go back to CNN global affairs analyst Kim Dozier. I mean, to Max's point, this is right out in the open, which is highly unusual for a conflict between Israel and Iran, right?

DOZIER: Out in the open and yet we're having this confirmed to us by anonymous officials. I don't know that we're going to have the Israeli military give us a Pentagon-style briefing and tell us what they fired and where and what the point was. So, unless the Iranian state media chooses to show us the leftovers of missiles or drones, we may not know what was fired, specifically what was hit.

You know, a lot of the Iranian attack apparently hit an Israeli air base. So, it looks like what the Israelis may have done is hit an Iranian army and air base, and that's it. We're not hearing reports of any explosions in the rest of the country.

So, this might actually be a return to the covert war that Israel has waged against Iran since about 2010, with assassinations, suicide quadcopters, taking out different parts of the nuclear program.

So, let's see if Israel decides to fess up in the next 24 hours because, you know, when it comes to the Israeli public, they don't need a public declaration. They're sure it was their team striking back. Let's see what Iran feels the need to do.

COATES: I want to bring back CNN chief national security correspondent Alex Marquardt. Alex, this is not something the U.S. wanted to happen because, of course, all the uncertainty of what happens next, right?

MARQUARDT: That's absolutely right, Laura. I think to some extent, they knew it was an inevitability. And in speaking with top U.S. officials throughout the course of the week, they did speak about it as a question of when, how, and what this would look like, not a question of if. Of course, they were holding out hope that it would not come to this and that, in the words of the administration and numerous administration officials, that they would take the win.

What we saw today, earlier today, was a meeting of the G7 leaders in Capri, in Italy. We've started seeing the U.S., U.K., the European Union imposing a vast array of sanctions against Iran as a response to their attack last weekend.

And so, that was essentially a communication by those western countries, by some of Israel's closest friends, who came to their defense on Saturday night to say, listen, we're with you, we are taking this action against Iran, we are trying to weaken Iran, but at the same time, please, don't ratchet things up and carry out a counterstrike against Iran.

But we are told now, Laura, that that communication was made by the Israelis to the Biden administration earlier today, that there was an imminent counterattack or retaliation coming by the Israelis against the Iranian side. I'm told by one senior U.S. official that the range of time was actually quite large. That came earlier today. And then, of course, tonight, we have seen this retaliation.

I just want to point out that there were two significant calls between Biden administration officials and Israeli officials today. The Israeli defense minister spoke with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. We also know that there was a virtual phone call with national security advisor Jake Sullivan and senior Israeli officials. So, there were numerous occasions in which the Israeli officials could have told the U.S. officials that this was coming. That's indeed what we understand happened.

But in the words of one U.S. official I spoke with moments ago, they did not endorse what happened tonight and endorse this plan because they're so fearful of what could happen next. Essentially, the best- case scenario, Laura, is that Iran kind of takes this on the chin and goes back to that shadow proxy war, but there is a very, very good chance that Iran responds directly to Israel yet again. Laura?


COATES: Very daunting proposition, thinking about all that has happened, the idea of what the foreign minister had to say earlier today, also the questions being raised of what impact of that advance notice will be on the United States' ability to remain distant from this particular interaction and retaliatory swapping of strikes. So important to hear this.

We're going to continue our live coverage of the breaking news tonight. Israel launching a retaliatory strike against Iran. Stay with CNN.