Israelis 'rehearse Iran attack'
Israelis 'rehearse Iran attack'
Israel has carried out an exercise that appears to have been a rehearsal for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, US officials have told the New York Times.
More than 100 Israeli fighter jets took part in manoeuvres over the eastern Mediterranean and over Greece in the first week of June, US officials said.
Iran insists its programme is peaceful, but Israel sees Iran's development of the technology as a serious threat.
Tehran is defying a demand from the UN that it stop the enrichment of uranium.
The UN Security Council approved a third round of sanctions against Iran over the issue in March 2008.
Several US officials briefing the New York Times said the exercise was intended demonstrate the seriousness of Israel's concern over Iran's nuclear activities, and its willingness to act unilaterally.
"They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know," a Pentagon official is quoted as saying by the newspaper.
"There's a lot of signalling going on at different levels."
The exercise involved Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots, the newspaper reported.
The helicopters and refuelling tankers flew more than 1,400km (870 miles), roughly the distance between Israel and Iran's main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.
The New York Times reported that Israeli officials declined to discuss the details of the exercise.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said the air force "regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel".
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned on 4 June that drastic measures were needed to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
He said Iran must be shown there will be devastating consequences if it did develop such weapons.
Israeli deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz - a former defence minister - said earlier this month that military strikes to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons looked "unavoidable".
In 1981, Israeli jets bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, 30km (18 miles) outside Baghdad.
Israel said it believed the French-built plant was designed to make nuclear weapons that could be used against Israel.
Will Israel bomb Iran?
Reports that Israel has plans for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities refuse to go away. The New York Times today carries a story on a major military exercise Israel carried out this month, described as a "dress rehearsal" for such a raid.
Such reports surface periodically. Back in 2005, the Sunday Times ran a big story with details of how Israeli forces practised destroying a mock-up of Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant in the Negev desert.
Virtually a year after the Sunday Times story, the New Yorker's ace investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, wrote a cracking tale about how George Bush had increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack to stop Iran's nuclear programme.
As timing is everything, the question that poses itself with the latest incarnation of this "plan to attack Iran" story is why now?
This week, Gordon Brown announced new sanctions against Iran, including financial measures already agreed in principle by the EU and a vaguer reference to oil and gas sanctions yet to be decided on. Brown appeared to have bounced the EU into the new measures as Brussels had not agreed on their timing.
Be that as it may, the EU has now adopted a harder line towards Iran, as the US has been urging for some time. But is George Bush losing his ardour to hit Iran? A recent interview with the Times indicated that America's lame duck president had "mellowed" after eight years in office - talking up multilateral diplomacy instead of military action as a way out of the Iranian nuclear impasse.
Yet the recent resignation of Admiral William Fallon as head of US forces in the Middle East was seen as a victory for the hawks in the administration as he was perceived to be an opponent of military action. But if we take Bush's comments to the Times, a US military strike seems less likely than before.
There have been signs that Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons of its own, is none too pleased that the US has backed off its hawkish stance. Israel publicly disagreed with the America's recent national intelligence estimate which concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, although it continued to enrich uranium.
The New York Times report indicates that Israel is keeping the military option open. Whether it will actually go ahead with a strike is another matter, given the difficulties of ensuring success, not to speak of the political repercussions should there be massive civilian casualties.
But it can be surmised that Israel wanted its dress rehearsal to be leaked to serve as a clear warning to Tehran of the risks it faces should it pursue uranium enrichment, which can lead to a nuclear bomb. Such a tough line is no bad thing politically for Ehud Olmert either as the Israeli prime minister is currently engulfed in a corruption scandal. Being tough with Iran also protects him against accusations that he is being weak in agreeing to an Egyptian-brokered truce with Hamas in Gaza.
In any event, Israel is not just relying on leaks to the New York Times to get its message across to the Iranians and everyone else about its resolve in stopping Iran developing an atomic weapon. Israel last September bombed what was alleged to be a covert nuclear reactor in Syria being built with North Korean help.
According to the New York Times, Iran is taking the risk of an Israeli attack seriously enough to be strengthening its air defences. Israeli sabre-rattling and bluster may have an unintended consequence. It could speed up Iran's bomb. North Korea showed that if you have bomb, people are more inclined to talk to you rather than attack you.