Last updated: 16 January, 2012

Regional tensions delay US-Israel military drill

Israel and the United States opted to delay a major joint military exercise because of regional tensions and instability, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday.

“The entire world understands that we had to postpone this exercise because of political and regional uncertainties, as well as the tensions and instability prevailing in the region,” Lieberman told public radio.

“It’s only a delay, the exercise will take place by the end of the year,” he added, speaking from Warsaw where he was on an official visit.

Speaking in Jerusalem at an Independence faction meeting, Defence Minister Ehud Barak noted later on Monday that talks with the US on postponing the exercise had began a month ago.

“In recent days, we reached the conclusion that it would be right to postpone it, this will enable us to better prepare for it,” he said in comments relayed by his office.

He added that the drill will probably take place in the second half of 2012, and constitutes “another layer of our deep and important security ties with the US.”

On Sunday, a senior Israeli security official confirmed that the exercise, codenamed “Austere Challenge 12,” which had been scheduled for spring, was now being put back to late 2012.

The joint manoeuvre was to have been the biggest yet between the two allies and was seen as an opportunity to display their joint military strength at a time of growing concern about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

But it was to come at a time of rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme, which Israel, Washington and much of the international community believe masks a weapons drive.

The United States is seeking tough new sanctions against Tehran, including its oil exports and financial institutions, and Iran has responded by threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

On Sunday, two Israeli officials questioned whether the international community, and the United States in particular, were pushing hard enough for new sanctions.

Lieberman on Monday also called for speedier action, saying now “is the time for the international community to move from words to actions.”

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the current regime of EU and US sanctions are not enough to force Tehran to halt its nuclear programme.

“As long as there won’t be real and effective sanctions against Iran’s petroleum industry and central bank, there will be no real effect on Iran’s nuclear programme,” Netanyahu told MPs at a parliamentary committee on Monday, with his remarks transmitted by a spokesman.

But Barak warned against publicly criticising the US on its course of action against Iran.

“On sanctions and the preparations for other options that could become relevant, this administration is definitely acting much more than in the past,” he told his faction members.

“Alongside the mutual respect in the (US-Israel) discourse, and alongside respecting each other’s freedom of decision, I think we need to speak clearly in closed chambers, and publicly be careful about respecting the other, and refrain from public criticism of a government that at the end of the day sees things similarly to us, and is acting to stop Iran from becoming nuclear,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Lieberman said it was not for Israel “to take on a mission that is one for the international community, but it must keep all options on the table.”

“Iran is not a threat to Israel alone. For the Gulf countries, Iran is also problem number one,” he said. “Iran has taken control of Iraq and wants to do the same in Saudi Arabia to be able to dictate energy policy in the whole world.”

Lieberman also accused Tehran of aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists, saying his regime “wouldn’t last a week without Tehran’s help.”

Israel has made no secret of its desire to see crippling sanctions imposed on Iran in a bid to halt its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is for civilian energy and medical purposes alone.

But it has also kept open the possibility of military action to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Israel has been linked in media reports to both a computer worm that set back the nuclear programme and a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.