JERUSALEM – An Israeli military exercise over the Mediterranean appears to have been less a dry run for an attack on Iran than a message that Tehran must curb its nuclear ambitions, according to officials and experts.
U.S. defense officials suggested last week that the drill was a dress rehearsal for an Israeli strike. But the Greek government, which took part in the exercise, rejected that assessment. And some observers think the disclosure of the maneuvers was aimed at getting the international community to step up diplomatic pressure on Tehran.
"The exercise has no connection with Israeli 'preparations' for an attack on Iran, as has been inaccurately reported," said Greek government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos. He said Israeli aircraft flew at high altitudes inconsistent with an attack, and the exercise did not simulate anti-aircraft fire.
News of the drill sent oil prices spiking. U.N. nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei warned an attack could turn the Mideast into a "ball of fire." And Iran's parliament speaker hinted a military strike could actually provoke the building of bombs.
The disclosure of the drill, conducted from May 28 to June 12, came amid growing Israeli impatience with international diplomatic efforts. Just before the drill, Europe presented Tehran an offer of economic incentives to halt its enrichment of uranium. Iran has not responded.
Retired Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon said the disclosure might have been political theater meant to rattle Tehran. "It might be a good idea," he told The Associated Press. "I read the newspapers in the last week and I enjoyed it."
Israel considers Iran its most dangerous foe, an assessment bolstered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's frequent calls for Israel's destruction.
Although Israel has said it favors a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff, it has not ruled out a military strike. This month, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would have no choice but to attack Iran if it didn't stop enriching uranium.
An Israeli air attack that destroyed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 and a strike on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria in September have added to the suspicions that Israel is planning action against Iran.
The Israeli military has refused to comment on the substance of the maneuvers, 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."
Israeli military officials have denied that the drill simulated an attack on Iran's nuclear program, though they acknowledge Israel is preparing for a possible strike. They spoke on condition of anonymity under military rules.
According to The New York Times, which first reported on the exercise, more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters took part, along with helicopters and refueling tanks. The helicopters and refuelers flew more than 900 miles, about the distance between Israel and Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Nantanz.
But Roussopoulos, the Greek government spokesman, said the range of the exercise did not indicate a link with Iran because Israeli warplanes previously have carried out exercises over Greece, Cyprus and Turkey.
The drill had no provision for dealing with anti-aircraft fire, did not include electronic warfare or surveillance aircraft and did not involve live ammunition, he said. Although ground attacks were simulated, the Iranian and Greek terrains are different, and aircraft flew at a high altitude, "which would not have been the case had the nature of the exercise been aggressive," he said.
A Greek air force statement said the maneuvers included air combat missions and simulated attacks on land targets, air refueling and search and rescue operations. The exercise was carried out east and south of Crete and in central Greece, the statement said.
A Greek air force official said each side carried out 120 flights. Israel used F16 and F15 combat planes and Black Hawk and Super Stallion helicopters, he confirmed, but would not say how many Israeli combat aircraft participated. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the drill.
"From what I've understood, this should primarily be seen as an exercise in psychological warfare, although the possibility that it is also related to genuine preparations for an attack on Iran should not be excluded," said Mouin Rabbani, an independent Mideast analyst.
And while the report originated at the Pentagon, "one doesn't expect the U.S. to leak these kind of things without close coordination with the Israelis," he said.
Israel-based Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar interpreted the disclosure as an Israeli attempt to influence the international diplomatic pressure on Iran.
The exercise "by no means says that Israel is going to attack," he said. "The very fact that the Israelis leaked it showed how much they want negotiations to work."
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., suggested the U.S. was behind the disclosure.
"It could be that some U.S. observers assume that Iran would only respond to diplomatic efforts if it was concerned that a real military option was being considered," Gold said.
Experts agree an attack on Iran's program would be much more complicated than the attacks on Iraq and Syria because the Iranian installations are scattered and some are in underground bunkers.
A powerful deterrent to an Israeli attack is the expectation Iran would retaliate, directly or through militant proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Yossi Melman, an Israeli military analyst, said the exercise "is not an omen" of a potential military strike. "It doesn't show anything," he said. "All it means is that Israel is preparing."