Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Top US military officer heads to Israel with Iran on the agenda

Top US military officer heads to Israel with Iran on the agenda
AFP, 26 June 2008

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US military chief Admiral Michael Mullen was expected in Israel this week for discussions including Iran, the Pentagon said Wednesday, amid speculation Israel is seeking Washington's tacit approval to strike Tehran's nuclear program.

The press office of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that Mullen left the United States on Tuesday "to go overseas to visit counterparts as well as combatant commands, and Israel is not his only stop."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters the trip had been on the schedule for "months."

"I believe this is a routine opportunity for Chairman Mullen to engage his counterpart in Israel on military-to-military matters, as he does in much of his travels around the world," Morrell said.

"I will say this, though: Obviously, when Chairman Mullen goes to Israel and speaks with the Israelis, they will no doubt discuss the threat posed by Iran, as we discuss it in this building, in other buildings in this town."

Morrell recalled that Washington was committed to resolving the nuclear threat posed by Iran through diplomacy and international sanctions, "while at the same time holding out the option of a military strike, if necessary."

"But the military strike is not our first choice," he said. "Never has been. And we continue to pursue economic and diplomatic pressures as the policy of this government."

US media have reported that more than 100 Israeli fighter jets participated in a training exercise with Greece earlier this month to prepare for a possible long-distance strike -- a maneuver seen as a warning against Iran.

Iran has defied UN sanctions and international demands by pressing on with its disputed uranium enrichment program, which Washington and Israel fear would be used to build a nuclear weapon.

Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense chief, said in an interview published in the Russian press Wednesday that Iran would be "annihilated" if it tried to attack Israel.

But, he said, "we are not planning any attack against Iran."

According to the US television network CBS, Israel does not want to wait until the new administration that will succeed US President George W. Bush in January to strike Iranian nuclear sites.

"The Israelis have been assured by the Bush administration that the Bush administration will not allow Iran to nuclearize," CBS consultant Michael Oren said.

"Israelis are uncertain about what would be the policies of the next administration vis-a-vis Iran," said Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research facility.

Speculation about a possible Israeli strike heated up this week after former UN ambassador John Bolton suggested in an interview with London's Daily Telegraph that Israel could attack Iran between the November 4 election and January.

VIDEO: Is Israel preparing to bomb Iran?

Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!
The New York Times reported Friday that Israel recently carried out a major military exercise that Pentagon officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter planes took part in the maneuvers over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece.

Part 1:

Part 2:

US concern over Israeli bomb 'rehearsal'

US concern over Israeli bomb 'rehearsal'
Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, The Age, Washington, June 21, 2008
Israel conducted a major military exercise earlier this month that US officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

US officials said that more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters took part in manoeuvres over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece during the first week of June.

The exercise also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots. The helicopters and refuelling tankers flew more than 1500 kilometres, about the same distance between Israel and Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, US officials said.

A spokesman for the Israeli military would only say 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 US and other foreign intelligence agencies.

A senior Pentagon official said one Israeli goal was to practise all 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 US and other countries that Israel was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from producing weapons-grade uranium continued to falter.

However, several US officials said they did not believe that such a strike, which would have political and security implications across the region and could complicate the Bush Administration's "war on terror", was imminent.

Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli defence minister and military chief of staff 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," Mr Mofaz said in the interview published on June 6, the day after the unpublicised exercise ended.

Iran has shown signs that it is taking the Israeli warnings seriously, by beefing up its air defences, 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 defence on guard," a Bush Administration official said.

Many US experts believe that any such attack could only delay and not eliminate Iran's nuclear program. Much of the program's infrastructure is underground, making precise targeting difficult. There is also concern that not all of the facilities have been detected. Many analysts say the sort of multiple attacks that would be required are beyond Israel's present capability.

Iran is also taking steps to better defend its nuclear facilities. Two sets of advanced Russian-made radar systems were recently delivered to Iran. US Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said in February that Iran was close to acquiring Russian-produced SA-20 surface-to-air missiles.

A National Intelligence Estimate issued in December by US intelligence agencies assessed that Iran had suspended work on weapons design in late 2003. The report stated that it was unclear if that work had resumed. It also noted that Iran's work on uranium enrichment and on missiles, two steps that Iran would need to take to field a nuclear weapon, had continued.

In late May, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran's suspected work on nuclear matters was a "matter of serious concern" and that the Iranians owed the agency "substantial explanations".

However, agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei also condemned Israel's September raid on Syria, saying countries undermined global security by taking the law into their own hands. Over the past three decades, Israel has carried out two unilateral attacks against suspected nuclear sites in the Middle East.

Much of the planning appears to reflect a commitment by Israel's military leaders to ensure that its armed forces are adequately trained, an imperative driven home by the difficulties the Israel Defence Forces encountered in their 2006 campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon.