WASHINGTON 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 early this month, 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 Friday warned 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 sensitive matter for the record.
"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. officials said Friday. "We watch globally everyday, 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."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev offered no comment beyond the military's statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he prefers that Iran's nuclear ambitions be halted by diplomatic means, but has pointedly declined to rule out military action. Bush administration officials have said the same.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published on Wednesday, Olmert said the current international sanctions against Iran would probably not succeed alone, saying there were "many things that can be done economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily."
Asked if Israel was capable of taking military action against Iran, Olmert said, "Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind."
Israeli military analyst Martin Van Creveld of Jerusalem's Hebrew University said military preparations for a possible attack are indeed under way.
"Israel has been talking about this possibility for a long time, that it would not take an Iranian nuclear weapon lying down. And it has been practicing the operation or operations for a long time," he said.
But though an Israeli strike would likely be able to "paralyze the most important Iranian nuclear installations," it probably wouldn't be able to destroy the program entirely, Van Creveld said. "I would be very surprised if Israel can really knock out every part of this program, which by all accounts appears to be large and well concealed and well dispersed," he said.
There are precedents for unilateral Israeli action in such cases. In 1981, Israeli jets bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility to end dictator Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. And last September Israel bombed a facility in Syria that U.S. officials have said was a nuclear reactor being constructed with North Korean assistance.
A U.S. intelligence report released late last year concluded that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons program, but Israeli intelligence believes that assessment is incorrect and that work is continuing.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Iran should be engaged in dialogue and encouraged to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency.
Lavrov made the statement when asked to comment on an Israeli Cabinet member's statement earlier this month that Israel could attack Iran if it does not halt its nuclear program.
"I hope the actual actions would be based on international law," Lavrov said. "And international law clearly protects Iran's and anyone else's territorial integrity."