International Herald Tribune, June 20, 2008
By Michael R. Gordon and Erich Schmitt
Washington: Israel carried out a major military exercise earlier this month that American officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Several American officials said the Israeli exercise appeared to be an effort to develop the military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program.
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.
Israeli officials declined to discuss the details of the exercise. A spokesman for the Israeli military would say only that the country’s air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.”
But the scope of the Israeli exercise virtually guaranteed that it would be noticed by American and other foreign intelligence agencies. A senior Pentagon official who has been briefed on the exercise, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the matter, said the exercise appeared to serve multiple purposes.
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.”
Several American officials said they did not believe that the Israeli government had concluded that it must attack Iran and did not think that such a strike was imminent.
Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli defense minister who is now a deputy prime minister, warned in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that Israel might have no choice but to attack. “If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack,” Mofaz said in the interview published on June 6, the day after the unpublicized exercise ended. “Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable.”
But Mofaz was criticized by other Israeli politicians as seeking to enhance his own standing as questions mount about whether the embattled Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, can hang on to power.
Israeli officials have told their American counterparts that Mofaz’s statement does not represent official policy. But American officials were also told that Israel had prepared plans for striking nuclear targets in Iran and could carry them out if needed.
Iran has shown signs that it is taking the Israeli warnings seriously, by beefing up its air defenses in recent weeks, including increasing air patrols. In one instance, Iran scrambled F-4 jets to double-check an Iraqi civilian flight from Baghdad to Tehran.
“They are clearly nervous about this and have their air defense on guard,” a Bush administration official said of the Iranians.
Any Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would confront a number of challenges. Many American experts say they believe that such an attack could delay but not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. Much of the program’s infrastructure is buried under earth and concrete and installed in long tunnels or hallways, making precise targeting difficult. There is also concern that not all of the facilities have been detected. To inflict maximum damage, multiple attacks might be necessary, which many analysts say is beyond Israel’s ability at this time.