WASHINGTON (AP) -- A large Israeli military exercise this month may have been aimed at showing Jerusalem's abilities to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
In a substantial show of force, Israel sent warplanes and other aircraft on a major exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean early this month, Pentagon officials said Friday.
Israel's military refused to confirm or deny that the maneuvers were practice for a strike in Iran.
Russia's foreign minister Friday warned against the use of force on Iran, saying there is no proof it is trying to build nuclear weapons with a program that Tehran says is for generating power.
U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the sensitive matter for the record.
"They have been conducting some large-scale exercises - they live in a tough neighborhood," one U.S. official said, though he offered no other recent examples.
The big exercise the first week of June was impossible to miss and may have been meant as a show of force as well as for practice on skills needed to execute a long-range strike mission.
The New York Times quoted U.S. officials Friday saying more than 100 Israeli F-16s and F-15s staged the maneuver, flying more than 900 miles, roughly the distance from Israel to Iran's Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, and that the exercise included refueling tankers and helicopters capable of rescuing downed pilots.
"It was noticed that a significant exercise took place - dozens and dozens of aircraft participated," one of the officials said. "We watch globally everyday, and this was noted."
The second U.S. defense official said the maneuver could be taken as a demonstration to Iran and the international community that Israel is serious about the need to challenge Iran's nuclear program - and could be prepared to do so militarily. "That's one of the assessments you could make out of the exercise," the official said.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Iran should be engaged in dialogue and encouraged to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency.
Lavrov made the statement when asked to comment on an Israeli Cabinet member's statement earlier this month that Israel could attack Iran if it does not halt its nuclear program.
"I hope the actual actions would be based on international law," Lavrov said. "And international law clearly protects Iran's and anyone else's territorial integrity."
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