A US official attended a classified Israel Air Force drill simulating a “massive attack” on Iran’s nuclear program that was held two weeks ago, according to a Tuesday report.
A US Air Force officer participated in the drill as an observer, Israel’s Kan public broadcaster said.
The drill involved dozens of jets and included various scenarios, including mid-air refueling, long-range strikes and responses to anti-aircraft missiles.
The unusual participation of a US official was touted by the report as evidence of a shift in the American approach to Iran’s nuclear program as negotiations for a nuclear deal have appeared to falter.
A US State Department official told reporters on Monday that the window of opportunity for reaching a potential nuclear deal with Iran was closing.
“Iran’s nuclear program is advancing. A deal will become irrelevant in a few weeks,” he said, noting that this has been made clear to Iran, as well as to other parties participating in the talks in Vienna.
Israel, which has largely opposed the agreement, has said that it reserves the right to take military action to protect its citizens regardless of what happens in Vienna.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday that “the campaign to weaken Iran” would be waged on a number of fronts. Speaking at the annual Annual International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, he said Israel has to prepare for a world that doesn’t have only one policeman, and recognizes that America is focused on Russia and China. “That’s the reality,” said Bennett.
He said he hoped the nuclear talks in Vienna would not end in a bad deal, but even a deal is reached, “Iran will remain Iran.” If Iran is given sanctions relief, Iran will only increase its harmful activities across the Middle East, he said.
Iran has called Israel’s military exercises and rhetoric against its nuclear program “empty threats” and has responded with military drills meant to serve as a deterrent to Israel.
An unverified report last week said the drill was carried out over the Mediterranean and involved “an unusually large” contingent of F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter craft, as well as Boeing mid-air refueling tankers.
The use of Israel’s aging mid-air refueling fleet would be a strong indication that Israel is planning for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or that it is seeking to project the image to Tehran and the rest of the world that it is preparing to do so.
Israel has reportedly approved a budget of some NIS 5 billion ($1.6 billion) to be used to prepare the military for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
It includes funds for various types of aircraft, intelligence-gathering drones and unique armaments needed for such an attack, which would have to target heavily fortified underground sites.
Because of the distance, carrying out an airstrike inside Iran and having enough fuel for the return trip would require Israeli planes to refuel in the sky or find a friendly airbase to land at.
A report in The New York Times last month, however, indicated that Israeli plans for a possible strike on Iran had been set back by delays in the delivery of eight new Boeing KC-47 supertankers, with consignment expected to take until late 2024 at least.
The $2.4 billion deal for the eight planes was signed in March.
Current and former officials quoted in the report said Israeli military planners believe that any strike on Iran will likely require multiple sorties against some sites, such as the underground Fordo uranium enrichment facility, necessitating speedy refueling.