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The shadow behind US-Israeli war games

US Navy soldiers aboard the USS Higgins in Haifa, Israel
American and Israeli personnel run joint simulation exercises every two years

By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent

"We're here for some very specific reasons, some specific threats that the Israelis are interested in, that we're interested in. And that's as far as I want to go down that road."

Com Carl Meuser of the US Navy destroyer Higgins was interrupted at this point by an anxious public affairs officer. The scenario neither wanted to discuss with the circle of visiting journalists aboard his ship was this: Israel bombs Iranian nuclear facilities - and Iran hits back.

In that case, Israel would definitely need the missile shield - sophisticated long-range radars and Patriot anti-missile devices - being tested in joint war games this week.

The US could do it much better, but an Israeli campaign would be very short
Ronen Bergman, Israeli security analyst

Operation Juniper-Cobra involves some 2,000 American and Israeli personnel. It is a regular event, taking place every two years, but this year speculation is more intense than ever that Israel is prepared to bomb Iran to stop its supposed nuclear weapons programme.

But how likely are hostilities between Israel and Iran?

The frequent Israeli insistence that "all options are on the table" could just be a means of putting pressure on Tehran. And if there is an element of bluff, then the more we hear about the military option the less likely it will be.

Conversely, says Ronen Bergman, a leading Israeli security analyst and author, if things go quiet that might be time to think Israel is preparing to act.

"I would not expect any signs whatsoever," he said, "if I was planning the attack I would do what I could to lower their alertness."

Air power

"It is not a bluff," said Isaac Ben Israel, a former general, now a professor of security studies at Tel Aviv University. "It is putting pressure on Iran in order than no-one will have to use [force].

"But if Iran will not be pressed, if Iran continues to insist that it has the right to go and enrich uranium as much as it wants, then someone will have to use force. Because in one thing we are serious. We will not let Iran have a nuclear bomb."

Is there an American veto over Israeli action? Ronen Bergman says Israeli has the military capability to go it alone.

"[It would be] a short campaign of air-strikes, focussing on the main facilities," he said. "Of course, the US could do it much better, but an Israeli campaign would be very short, focussing on what Israel sees as the main elements of the project, and using only air power."

Israeli distrust of Iran's nuclear programme and a determination to do something about it forms a remarkably broad consensus across the military, the intelligence establishment, the government and the opposition.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful civilian purposes

Iran, of course, denies that its nuclear programme is anything other than peaceful. Israeli officials don't believe it. From their point of view, the deal on uranium enrichment is a trap: not enough to stop the construction of a weapon but convincing to the rest of the world - and therefore a block to Israeli military action.

"Using military force is the last option but it should be prepared," said Shaul Mofaz, deputy opposition leader, formerly Israel's military commander and, coincidentally, an Iranian-born Jew.

How long then would you give sanctions to work before Israeli takes military action, I asked him?

"I believe 2010 will be the year of sanctions," he said. "To see result of the sanctions would need at least one year and the co-operation of Russia and China. The Iranians are using a policy of buying time and so far they are very successful. It is race against time, and so far time is winning."

A crude rocket was sent into Israel from Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon this week. It was - presumably - a message from Iran: if we are attacked, expect to hear from Hezbollah - and Hamas. The Iranians themselves have long-range missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

The Israeli public were reassured to see US Patriot missile trucks parked in beach-side car parks this week. Juniper Cobra is just an exercise - at best an ambiguous guide to Israeli intentions.

But shouldn't the proposed deal for Iran to enrich uranium abroad mean the crisis is over? Most Israelis don't think so - and neither does their government.



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