Israel "trained for air attack on Iranian nuclear facility"

Israel carried out a major air force exercise earlier this month that United States officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, The New York Times reported Friday.

Russia meanwhile warned against using force against Tehran, while an Iranian cleric threatened with a "severe blow" if Israel attacked Iran.

More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters participated in the exercise, carried out over the eastern Mediterranean and over Greece during the first week of June, US officials said, according to the newspaper.

The exercise also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots.

The helicopters and refuelling tankers flew some 1,500 kilometres, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, US officials said.

An Israeli military spokesman in Tel Aviv confirmed the exercise, which he said was part of regular training, but would give no details.

"The Israeli military regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, providing no further comment.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not discuss Israel's military training activities but reaffirmed the US commitment to resolve the dispute with Iran diplomatically.

"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," McCormack said.

The New York Times quoted one Pentagon official as saying the exercise could have multiple purposes: to practise, but also 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 bomb-grade uranium continued to falter.

The report comes two weeks after Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister and army chief of staff, warned in an interview with Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily that if Iran did not stop its nuclear programme, Israel would attack.

Mofaz had made that remark a day after the exercise ended, the Times said.

The minister had been slammed by other Israeli politicians, who accused him of "irresponsible populism" and said he had made the remark only to gain appeal in the eyes of hardline voters at a time when Israel seems to be heading for early elections.

The Pentagon official told The New York Times that Israel's air force usually conducts major exercises in the early summer.

"They rehearse it, rehearse it and rehearse it, so if they actually have to do it, they're ready. They're not taking any options off the table," he added.

The report coincides with an interview with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak published in Le Monde Friday, in which he reiterated that "no options must be taken off the table" to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

"It is a race against time," Barak told the Paris daily in remarks translated into French. "The Iranians are determined to deceive the entire world," he said, adding that first all diplomatic options should be exhausted.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Friday warned against using force against Iran without proof that it is developing nuclear weapons.

"Our partners in the United States and Israel insist that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. We think, that in this case you need to present facts supported by the IAEA. So far we have seen none," Lavrov was quoted by news agency Interfax as saying.

Iran must be engaged in dialogue and continue cooperation with the international nuclear watchdog agency, Lavrov said.

He added, "The international community must be very sure that whatever unilateral action is being prepared under the pretext of implementing the decisions of the IAEA and the Security Council be very factually substantiated."

The United States has viewed with suspicion Moscow's cooperation in building Tehran's first nuclear power plant in Bushehr, which began receiving the first shipments of nuclear fuel from Russia this year.

Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, in his Friday sermon in Tehran, warned that "if the enemies of Iran, especially Israel, would dare using force against Iran, they would face a severe blow in their mouth and our decisive united response would make them regret having had such a plan.", according to dpa.

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