WASHINGTON (AFP) — Israeli jet pilots trained for a possible strike on Iranian nuclear sites, US media reported Friday, sparking a strong warning from Tehran and caution from world leaders.
A major military exercise carried out by Israel earlier this month seemed to be a test-run for any potential strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, the New York Times reported, citing US officials.
In Athens, an official with the Greek air force's central command confirmed to AFP the substance of the report, stating that it had taken part in "joint training exercises" with Israel off the Mediterranean island of Crete.
The maneuvers, code-named "Glorious Spartan 08," took place on May 28 and June 12, and consisted of aerial maneuvers and knowledge exchange, said the Greek source, who requested anonymity.
The goal was for more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets to prepare for long-range strikes and demonstrate Israel's serious concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Times reported.
On June 6 Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that Iran would face attack if it pursues what he said was its nuclear weapons program.
In Tehran, senior cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami warned Israel of a "strong blow" if it attacks Iran.
"If enemies especially Israelis and their supporters in the United States would want to use a language of force, they should rest assured that they will receive a strong blow in the mouth," Khatami said in his Friday prayers sermon.
At the United Nations, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that Washington favored diplomacy to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis -- at least for the moment.
"We're in the phase of diplomacy, we want a diplomatic settlement of this issue," Khalilzad told reporters.
"I saw the article in (the) paper today," Khalilzad told reporters. "You know our view with regard to Iran, which is that it would be unacceptable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons."
"Right now we are in the phase of diplomacy, that's what we are pushing for, we want a diplomatic solution to this problem. The ball is frankly in Iran's court," he said.
The United States -- together with Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany -- has been pursuing a carrot-and-stick approach to force Iran to halt uranium enrichment which it fears is aimed at building a nuclear bomb.
The UN Security Council has in the last two years imposed three rounds of increasingly stiff sanctions on Iran for its decision to spurn the incentives and continue pursuing its enrichment program.
US President George W. Bush, who was not expected to talk about the report, said repeatedly on his just-completed trip to Europe that he prefers a diplomatic solution, but has not ruled out using force.
At the State Department in Washington, spokesman Sean McCormack was circumspect.
"We are hopeful that there are those reasonable officials within the Iranian government who will see that continuing on the course that they are on ... is not a good road for the Iranian government to go down, because they will continue to incur greater and greater costs as a result of actions by the international community," he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a Moscow speech that there was no proof Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and warned unilateral action risked repeating the mistakes of the Iraq invasion.
"We have been repeatedly asking our American and Israeli colleagues, who insist that Iran ... is engaged in making a nuclear bomb, to provide factual information to those assertions. So far we have seen none," he said.
Russia has repeatedly cast doubt on Western charges that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons under the cover of a civil nuclear energy program.
"You remember the facts, the so-called facts, which were presented before Iraq was attacked," he said, in reference to faulty US intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
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