A large Israeli military exercise this month may have been aimed at showing Jerusalem's abilities to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
In a substantial show of force, Israel sent warplanes and other aircraft on a major exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, Pentagon officials said Friday. Israel's military refused to confirm or deny that the maneuvers were practice for a strike in Iran.
Russia's foreign minister warned Friday against the use of force on Iran, saying there is no proof it is trying to build nuclear weapons with a program that Tehran says is for generating power.
U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter for the record.
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“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 big exercise the first week of June was impossible to miss and may have been meant as a show of force as well as a practice on skills needed to execute a long-range strike mission, one U.S. official said.
The New York Times quoted officials Friday as saying that more than 100 Israeli F-16s and F-15s staged the maneuver, flying more than 900 miles, roughly the distance from Israel to Iran's Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, and that the exercise included refueling tankers and helicopters capable of rescuing downed pilots.
“It was noticed that a significant exercise took place – dozens and dozens of aircraft participated,” one U.S. official said Friday. “We watch globally every day, and this was noted.”
A second U.S. defense official said the maneuver could be taken as a demonstration that Israel is serious about the need to challenge Iran's nuclear program – and could be prepared to do so militarily. “That's one of the assessments you could make out of the exercise,” the official said.
Asked to comment, the Israeli military issued a statement saying only that the Israeli air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.”
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment on whether the U.S. supports or opposes any future Israeli airstrikes against Iran.
“We are seeking a peaceful, diplomatic resolution” to the threat the West sees from Iran's nuclear program. “We have made that clear to the Israeli government; we have made that clear to the Iranian government; we have made that clear to anybody who will listen and who asked about it.”
A U.S. intelligence report released late last year concluded that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons program, but Israeli intelligence believes that is incorrect and that work is continuing.