JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. leak of an Israeli air exercise reported to be practice for possible bombing of Iran’s nuclear sites was seen in Israel on Sunday as a deliberate move to increase pressure on Tehran to halt sensitive atomic work.
“When the diplomacy of economic and political pressure fails to produce results, a shift is made to gunboat diplomacy,” wrote Alex Fishman, military affairs correspondent of Israel’s biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.
“As the Iranian regime discusses the European Union representative’s most recent offer to halt its nuclear program in exchange for extensive benefits, the Americans opted to add a bit more pressure in the shape of Israel’s air force,” he said.
Citing unidentified Pentagon sources, the New York Times said on Friday more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 jets took part in a long-range Mediterranean exercise this month that appeared to be a rehearsal for real missions over Iran.
Israel did not confirm the reported exercise had taken place. But officials said such drills have been commonplace at least since 2005.
Commentator Amir Rappaport, writing in Israel’s Maariv daily, said it was likely the Pentagon leak was an attempt “to deter Iran and increase pressure on it to cooperate” with international nuclear watchdogs.
Earlier this month, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana went to Tehran to deliver a revised offer of economic and political incentives from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China for Iran to stop pursuing technology that could yield atomic bombs.
Iran has made clear it does not plan to stop a uranium enrichment program which it says is aimed at fueling power plants.
Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense chief, told Yedioth several weeks ago that “if Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, stopping short of an explicit threat to strike Iran, has called for “all possible means” to be used to stop its nuclear activities.
An analysis in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said the Olmert government viewed an attack on Iran as a last resort and would not strike without first coordinating its actions with the United States.
“Another variable is international sanctions on Iran. These are being applied sluggishly,” Haaretz’s Yossi Melman wrote. “But Israel still has not given up hope that Moscow and Beijing will change their policies and impose harsher sanctions.”
Israel, which is believed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981. Last September, it mounted a similar raid against a Syrian site that the United States described as a secret reactor built with North Korean help — a charge denied by Damascus.
Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. air force colonel who now stages wargames for various government agencies in Washington, said Iran’s nuclear facilities were too distant, numerous and fortified for Israel to tackle unilaterally.
“The United States thinks in terms of around 1,000 ‘aim points’ while an Israeli strike would be against around 100 ‘aim points,”‘ he said, adding that such a mission would be “disruptive” rather than “destructive.”