U.S., Israel Start Joint Military Drill Amid Iran Tensions

The U.S. and Israel began their biggest joint air and missile defense exercise today amid rising tensions with Iran and as American presidential candidates prepare for a foreign-policy debate expected to focus on the region.

“Austere Challenge 12 is the largest aerial defense exercise to take place between the two militaries,” the Israeli army said overnight in an e-mailed statement. The three-week drill, involving as many as 3,500 U.S. personnel in the region along with 1,000 members of the Israel Defense Forces, according to the Pentagon.

Although the Israeli military said that planning for the exercise began over two years ago and is “not a response to specific events in the region,” it takes place amid growing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli leaders accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and have said that all options, including a military strike, are justified to counter what they describe as an existential threat.

Iranian officials say their nuclear program is intended only for civilian purposes and that they will retaliate to any Israeli military action.

Strong Alliance

“The joint exercise comes when Iran is under greater pressure than ever before to make concessions to its nuclear program,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “This drill sends a message that the pressure will continue, and that despite strategic disagreements between Israel and the U.S. the alliance remains strong, particularly with respect to any Iranian effort to retaliate.”

The White House today denied a report in the New York Times that Iran had agreed to hold direct one-on-one talks over its nuclear program following the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American election,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mailed statement. “The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that.”

President Barack Obama’s administration has openly disagreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran’s progress toward the capability to produce a nuclear weapon and the timing of any military strikes to stop a program.

“Israel has to make its own decisions how to protect its national security,” Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration, said in an interview today on Israel’s Army Radio. Israel should take into account its historic security partnership with the U.S., Flournoy said, adding that she hopes neither country will feel it has to act unilaterally on the issue.

U.S. Debate

The U.S.-Israel exercise starts a day before the third and final debate between Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Florida, which will focus on foreign policy issues. Romney accused Obama of wanting to “put daylight” between the U.S. and Israel in their previous debate on Oct. 16.

“It is never helpful to the U.S.-Israel relationship when the relationship becomes a subject of discussion in either of our election campaigns,” Flournoy told Army Radio. Israeli elections are scheduled for Jan. 22.

“While Netanyahu is often accused of favoring Romney, the timing of the military exercise is problematic regarding the American election since Republicans can now accuse the Israeli government of helping Obama by providing images of cooperation right before the election,” Steinberg said.

Earthquake Drill

Austere Challenge 12, which was postponed from earlier this year, follows a U.S.-led exercise completed last month that involved more than 30 nations in the largest mine-clearing demonstration in the Middle East. Iranian officials have periodically threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil is shipped daily.

The Israeli military’s Home Front Command also began a nationwide earthquake drill set to run until Oct. 25.

“No other government has invested as much in home front defense and we still have many plans and much work yet before us,” Netanyahu said at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “The main point that we would like to make clear to Israeli citizens via this drill and other steps is that in a missile attack we want people to run inside their homes and in an earthquake we want people to run outside their homes.”

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