Strike on Iran 'would cause conflagration in Mideast'

The UN nuclear watchdog chief warned in comments aired today that any military strike on Iran could turn the Mideast to a “ball of fire” and lead Iran to a more-aggressive stance on its controversial nuclear programme.

The comments by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, came in an interview with an Arab television station aired today, a day after US officials said they believed recent large Israeli military exercises may have been meant to show Israel’s ability to hit Iran’s nuclear sites.

“In my opinion, a military strike will be the worst... it will turn the Middle East to a ball of fire,” Mr ElBaradei said on Al-Arabiya television.

It also could prompt Iran to press even harder to seek a nuclear programme, and force him to resign, he said.

Iran also criticised the Israeli exercises. The official IRNA news agency quoted a government spokesman as saying that the exercises demonstrate Israel “jeopardises global peace and security”.

Israel sent warplanes and other aircraft on a major exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean earlier this month, US military officials said on Friday.

Israel’s military refused to confirm or deny that the manoeuvres were practice for a strike in Iran, saying only that it regularly trains for various missions to counter threats to the country.

But the exercise the first week of June may have been meant as a show of force as well as a practice on skills needed to execute a long-range strike mission, one US official said.

The New York Times quoted officials on Friday as saying that more than 100 Israeli F-16s and F-15s staged the manoeuvre, flying more than 900 miles, roughly the distance from Israel to Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, and that the exercise included refuelling tankers and helicopters capable of rescuing downed pilots.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he prefers that Iran’s nuclear ambitions be halted by diplomatic means, but has pointedly declined to rule out military action.

The US also says it is seeking a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the threat the West sees from Iran’s nuclear programme, although US officials also have refused to take the threat of military action off the table.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refused to comment on the Israeli manoeuvres in an interview with National Public Radio aired today but said: “We are committed to a diplomatic course.”

Russia’s foreign minister warned on Friday against the use of force on Iran, saying there is no proof it is trying to build nuclear weapons with the a programme, which Tehran says is for generating power.

One Israeli MP urged caution, saying that the world should first do more to toughen and broaden the sanctions against Iran to persuade its leaders to halt the nuclear programme.

Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee in Israel’s parliament, suggested steps including banning Iranian planes, ships and sports delegations from entering Western countries.

“There’s a long way to go before diplomatic efforts are exhausted,” Mr Hanegbi said. “The sanctions aren’t very strong, they are very shallow, there’s a lot of room for enhancing them.”

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published on Wednesday, Mr Olmert said the current international sanctions against Iran would probably not succeed alone, saying there were “many things that can be done economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily”.

Asked if Israel was capable of taking military action against Iran, Mr Olmert said, “Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind.”

Meanwhile, reaction to the Israeli exercises rippled across other parts of the Gulf.

In Dubai, the government-owned Khaleej Times newspaper warned in an editorial that an attack on Iran by Israel or the US would have “disastrous consequences for the region”.

“A nuclear Iran is in nobody’s interest, but military action and armed rehearsals will also not be tolerated,” the paper said.

The US and many Western nations accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear bomb. Iran has rejected the charges saying its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity not a weapon.

A US intelligence report released late last year concluded that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapons programme, but Israeli intelligence believes that is incorrect and that work is continuing.

There is precedent for unilateral Israeli action. In 1981, Israeli jets bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility to end dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear programme. And last September, Israel bombed a facility in Syria that US officials have said was a nuclear reactor being constructed with North Korean assistance.

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