American military officials say Israel launched a major military exercise aimed in part at demonstrating its ability to stage an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israel’s military refuses to confirm or deny whether the exercise was a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack.
But two Pentagon officials said Israel sent dozens of aircraft on the large-scale mission in the eastern Mediterranean in early June.
One defense official said the exercise could be taken as a show of force to Iran and a demonstration to the world that Israel is serious about the need to challenge the country’s nuclear program – and could be prepared to do so militarily.
“They have been conducting some large-scale exercises – they live in a tough neighborhood,” one U.S. official said, though he offered no other recent examples.
The New York Times first reported Friday that more than 100 Israeli fighter jets took part in the maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. Citing undisclosed American officials, it said the exercise appeared to be an effort to focus on long-range strikes.
The aircraft used in the drill flew a distance of about 900 miles – similar to the distance between Israel and uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, the officials said.
“They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,” the Pentagon official said to the Times. “There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.”
U.S. officials, however, did not believe Israel had decided to attack Iran or think such a strike was imminent.
The newspaper said Israeli officials would not discuss the apparent rehearsal, but a spokesman said that the military “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.”
Israeli military analyst Martin Van Creveld of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said military preparations for a possible attack are indeed under way.
“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.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev offered no comment beyond the military’s statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he prefers that Iran’s nuclear ambitions be halted by diplomatic means, but has pointedly declined to rule out military action.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published on Wednesday, Olmert said the current international sanctions against Iran would probably not succeed alone, saying there were “many things that can be done economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily.”
Asked if Israel was capable of taking military action against Iran, Olmert said, “Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind.”
Russia’s foreign minister is warning against the use of force on Iran, saying there is no proof it is trying to build nuclear weapons with the program Tehran said is for generating power.
There are precedents for unilateral Israeli action in such cases. In 1981, Israeli jets bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility to end dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. And last September Israel bombed a facility in Syria that U.S. officials have said was a nuclear reactor being constructed with North Korean assistance.
A U.S. intelligence report released late last year concluded that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons program, but Israeli intelligence believes that assessment is incorrect and that work is continuing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.