JERUSALEM, (IPS) - Israeli defense experts were not surprised by a New York Times report over the weekend that the Israeli air force had recently conducted what appeared to be a rehearsal for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israel, the experts say, has never taken the military option off the table and they therefore expect the air force to be training for a strike in Iran. “It is logical that the army is training for an Iranian mission,” says Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv. “We are preparing for it. The air force is in charge of this file.”
Over 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, as well as helicopters and refueling tankers, took part in the exercise over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in early June, according to The New York Times. Quoting unnamed US officials, the report said that the helicopters and tankers covered 1,400 kilometers, approximately the distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.
The report quotes an unnamed Pentagon official saying that the exercise was also meant to send a message. The Israelis, the official told The New York Times, “wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know. There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.”
The Israeli army did not deny the report, saying only in a statement that the air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.”
The use of F-16s and F-15s is also consistent with an exercise of this nature as both are long-range warplanes that would be used if Israel was to launch a strike against Iran. Inbar told IPS that he was “sure” the army is preparing for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and that it was “just a question of whether there is a political decision to go ahead with it or not.”
When asked whether Israel would launch a strike against Iran, Israeli leaders have generally tended to be vague, saying only that “all options” are on the table. Former air force chief Eitan Ben-Eliyahu says he is sure the military is rehearsing for a possible operation. “There is no military option without training for a military option,” he said earlier this week on Israel TV’s Channel One.
Ben-Eliyahu said he saw the leaking of the story as part of the diplomatic efforts aimed at deterring Iran from pursuing its nuclear aspirations. “These exercises have to be conducted because they are also part of the diplomatic process,” he said. “Exposing your cards strengthens the diplomatic option. And there is no diplomacy without there being military backing for it.”
In the most strident comments yet by an Israeli leader on the Iran issue, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is a former chief of staff and a former defense minister, said earlier this month that Israel “will attack” if Iran did not suspend its nuclear program. “Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable,” he said in an interview. Both Israel and the US believe Iran is bent on developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists its nuclear program is civilian in nature.
Political leaders in Israel were highly critical of Mofaz, who views himself as a potential successor to embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They accused him of exploiting a highly sensitive strategic problem facing Israel in a bid to paint himself as a tough leader ahead of a possible leadership primary in the ruling Kadima party should Olmert be forced out.
Israeli officials tried to play down the comments, reportedly telling their US colleagues that they did not reflect government policy.
Ever since last December, when US intelligence agencies issued a National Intelligence Estimate asserting that in 2003 Iran halted work on nuclear weapons design, the prevailing view in Israel has been that US President George W. Bush will not resort to force in trying to stop Tehran from going nuclear. (The report did also say it could not be determined whether the work had been resumed.)
Many experts believe that Israel will not — or cannot — go it alone in attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran has spread its nuclear installations across the country and has also built them deep underground and behind reinforced concrete walls, making it difficult to accurately target them.
Israel, these experts contend, does not have the ability to carry out the type of sustained attack against multiple, well-protected targets that would be required to neutralize — or even badly damage — Iran’s nuclear program.
But Israel has gone it alone in the past when it suspected an Arab state was developing nuclear weapons. Israeli planes flew all the way to Iraq in 1981 and destroyed a nuclear plant built by Saddam Hussein at Osirak. Last September, Israeli planes destroyed an installation in Syria that US intelligence officials later said was a nuclear reactor that had been built with the aid of North Korea.
Listening to a somewhat cryptic Ben-Eliyahu, it doesn’t sound like the difficulties Israel would face in striking Iran’s nuclear installations have stopped the army from training to do just that. “There is only a military option if you are training for it,” he said.
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