WASHINGTON (AFP) – US officials say a major military exercise carried out by Israel earlier this month seemed to be a practice for any potential strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, US media reported Friday.
More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets took part in maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in the first week of June to gear the military for long-range strikes and demonstrate Israel’s serious concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the New York Times cited US officials as saying.
The exercise also included helicopters, which could be used in rescuing downed pilots, with the helicopters and refueling tankers flying over 900 miles (1,440 kilometers), roughly the same distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, the Times website reported.
A Pentagon official briefed on the exercise said a goal of the practice flights was to send a message that the Jewish state was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts failed to halt Tehran’s production of bomb-grade uranium.
“They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,” the Pentagon official was quoted as saying.
“There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.”
On June 6 Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that Iran would face attack if it pursues what he said was its nuclear weapons program.
“If Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it,” Mofaz told the Yediot Aharonot daily.
Last month the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s atomic watchdog, expressed “serious concern” that Iran is still hiding information about alleged studies into making nuclear warheads and defying UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment.
Iran has shown signs that it is taking an Israeli attack threat seriously, by beefing up air defenses and increasing patrols, the Times reported.
“They are clearly nervous about this and have their air defense on guard,” a Bush administration official was quoted as saying of the Iranians.
Over the past three decades Israel has twice taken out suspected nuclear weapons facilities in Middle East states. In 1981 Israeli jets raided Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak which Israelis believed was part of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons development program.
Last September Israeli jets bombed a site in the Syrian desert which the Israeli military believed housed a partly constructed nuclear reactor. The Syrians have denied the allegations.