US officials: Israeli military exercise was preparation for attack on Iran's nuke plant

The exercise involved more than 100 jet fighters, helicopters, and air-refueling tankers, according to a new report.

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US military officials say that a major Israeli military exercise conducted two weeks ago appeared to be a rehearsal for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, according to a New York Times report.

The Times writes that the exercise took place during the first week of June, and was so large as to be nearly guaranteed to be detected by US and other foreign observers, including Iran itself

More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters participated in the maneuvers, which were carried out over the eastern Mediterranean and over Greece during the first week of June, American officials said.
The exercise also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots. The helicopters and refueling tankers flew more than 900 miles, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, American officials said.

A Pentagon official, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue, told the Times that the high profile of the exercise was not an accident. Rather, it was one of Israel's two intended goals for undergoing the rehearsal.

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One Israeli goal, the Pentagon official said, was to practice flight tactics, aerial refueling and all other details of a possible strike against Iran's nuclear installations and its long-range conventional missiles.
A second, the official said, was to send a clear message to the United States and other countries that Israel was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium continued to falter.
"They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know," the Pentagon official said. "There's a lot of signaling going on at different levels."

The Times notes that Iran appears to be "beefing up its air defenses" recently in response, and has been buying Russian radar systems and surface-to-air missiles to better protect its nuclear facilities.

Agence France-Presse writes that an Israeli Air Force spokesman neither confirmed nor denied the exercise's existence or its focus on Iran, saying only that "The Israeli Air Force regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats." AFP notes, however, that the same week that the exercise took place, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that "If Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it."

In an interview with Der Spiegel earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also indicated that an attack on Iran was a possibility.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can Israel live with a nuclear Iran?
Olmert: No. I don't think -- considering the nature of the Iranian regime -- that Israel can be expected to live under the threat that they may use it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does Israel have the military capability to remove any nuclear threat on its own?
Olmert: I think that the capabilities of Israel are well known to the world and I don't need to go into the details and to analyze them or to describe further what everyone knows.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the Begin Doctrine, which stipulates that Israel can act on its own if it feels threatened, still apply today?
Olmert: Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind.

The New York Sun reports that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a bipartisan thinktank, released a paper this week indicating Israeli preference for preemptive action against Iranian nuclear facilities, rather than attempting to deter an Iran that has nuclear weapons.

The paper proposes that prevention of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is a superior option to the prospect of deterring the Iranians once they get one: "Americans should recognize that deterrence is, in Israeli eyes, an unattractive alternative to prevention, because, if deterrence fails, Israel would suffer terribly. The consequence is that any suggestion that a policy of deterrence is America's preferred option only reinforces the idea among many Israelis that, in the end, they may be left alone to bear the brunt of the Iranian nuclear threat."

The Sun notes that the paper, available on the Institute's website, includes signatories from the camps of both US presidential nominees: former national security adviser Tony Lake for Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois and former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey for Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

But the Jerusalem Post reports that even if Israel did launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, it's unlikely to be able to destroy Iran's nuclear program completely, according to Israeli military analyst Martin Van Creveld of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

"Israel has been talking about this possibility for a long time, that it would not take an Iranian nuclear weapon lying down. And it has been practicing the operation or operations for a long time," he said.
But though an Israeli strike would likely be able to "paralyze the most important Iranian nuclear installations," it probably won't be able to destroy the program entirely, Van Creveld said. "I would be very surprised if Israel can really knock out every part of this program, which by all accounts appears to be large and well concealed and well dispersed," he said.

Further, in an article examining Iran's options for retaliation against an attack by the US, The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Israel is a viable target for counterattack by Shahab-3 ballistic missiles from Iran or smaller rockets from Lebanon, launched by Iran-supported Hezbollah. And the Monitor adds that Iran has attacked Israeli interests farther abroad, making an Iranian response to attack very hard to predict.

Iran and Hezbollah are alleged to have collaborated in the May 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in revenge for Israel's killing of a Hezbollah leader months before. Argentine prosecutors charge that they jointly struck again in 1994, bombing a Jewish community center in the Argentine capital that killed 85, one month after Israel attacked a Hezbollah base in Lebanon.
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