Israel Conducted War Games, U.S. Officials Report

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2008

In the latest sign of escalating tension over Tehran's alleged nuclear program, Israel held a massive military exercise this month that involved the types of warplanes, distances and maneuvers required for airstrikes on Iran, according to senior U.S. officials.

The mock operation reflected a growing policy schism over Iran among major international players at a time when U.S. politics may freeze major decisions until a new administration is in place, its officials are confirmed and a policy review is complete.

More than 100 Israeli warplanes -- including F-15s and F-16s, refueling tankers and helicopters for pilot rescue -- were involved in the military exercise, which was first reported by the New York Times yesterday. Israeli warplanes flew as much as 900 miles across the Mediterranean and back, U.S. officials said.

Israel refused to comment on the exercise. "The Israeli Air Force regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel," the Israel Defense Forces said.

Western officials said Israel has carried out maneuvers as part of a program started in the 1990s by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He began acquiring long-range bombers and missiles after warning that Iran's nuclear program threatened Israel's existence.

But the latest exercise comes at a tense time, with the standoff in diplomacy fueling divergent strategies. Washington faces growing constraints; Israel feels increasingly threatened; and U.S. allies are determined to avoid military action. Iran is more powerful than at any time since the 1979 revolution, U.S. officials say.

Iran is now producing about one kilogram of low-enriched uranium a day for its energy program, which Tehran has repeatedly stated is only for electricity, not weaponry. By the end of the year, Iran could have 500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. It would take about 700 kilograms to begin enrichment for weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, according to former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright. In a move that may have been partly fueled by domestic politics, Israeli Transportation Minister and former Army chief Shaul Mofaz said this month that an attack on Iran was unavoidable because international sanctions had been ineffective.

Israel's exercise sends a signal to Iran and its allies. "It's a way of saying, 'If you're not willing to ratchet up the pressure, you're going to make force more likely, as the current path is not changing Iranian behavior,' " said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The challenge of dealing with Iran's nuclear program is complicated by other issues. A lame-duck Bush administration and presidential candidates with disparate positions limit Washington's short-term options, U.S. officials and analysts said. The U.S. presence in Iraq also might be undermined by military action that could provoke an Iranian response.

"I don't think the Pentagon is in the business of scaring the Iranians," said former assistant secretary of state Martin Indyk, now at the Brookings Institution. "They are happy with the way things are going in Iraq and don't want anything to upset the apple cart in a way that will make the surge look problematic."

A senior Iranian cleric warned that Iran will respond to external threats. "If the enemies, particularly Israel and its American backers, adopt a language of force against Iran, they can be sure that they will receive a strong slap on the face from Iran," cleric Ahmad Khatami said in a sermon broadcast on state radio.

The soaring price of oil is another constraint on U.S. military action or on prospects that the Bush administration would give Israel a green light to act. "A raid on Iran would convulse the markets," said J. Robinson West of PFC Energy. "The price would go into uncharted territory. Pick a number. It could easily reach $200."

But oil markets may not deter Israel, said energy specialist James Placke, a former U.S. diplomat. "Take Israel's statements at face value. They really do regard [Iran's program] as an existential threat, and they will do whatever they feel is necessary."

The Bush administration said yesterday that it is firmly committed to a package presented last weekend by the world's six major powers. The deal calls for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for political and economic incentives, including talks with Washington.

"We've told the Israelis, we've told everybody who will listen, anybody who asks, what our focus is on in terms of the diplomacy, trying to make that work, trying to find a peaceful resolution to a very serious issue," said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman.

Russia, one of the six powers involved, warned against military action. "If things happen like threats of force and unilateral sanctions outside the framework of the [U.N.] Security Council, it is distracting from the negotiating process," said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations. "A military move would have devastating consequences for the prospect of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, for the region and internationally."

Tehran has sent mixed signals on the incentives package, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki saying Thursday that the offer is under study. Western officials are not optimistic about a breakthrough.

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