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US Stresses Diplomacy on Iran Amid Reported Israeli Attack Exercise

The United States Friday reiterated its commitment to a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear issue amid a report Israel conducted a simulated attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The New York Times said the long-range Israeli exercise was conducted over the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

U.S. officials are expressing understanding for Israel's concern about the Iranian nuclear program and pointedly have not criticized the reported exercise.

But they are reiterating the Bush administration's commitment to a two-track diplomatic strategy of incentives and sanctions to try to get Iran to drop its uranium enrichment project, and say they still hold out hope diplomacy will work.

The comments follow a New York Times report Friday quoting U.S. officials as saying that Israel conducted a long-range military exercise over the Mediterranean and Greece two weeks ago that appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said while the Bush administration itself forecloses no options for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, it continues to pursue the diplomatic track and believes it can work.

He said he could not speak to what Israel intended to achieve with the exercise, said to have involved more than 100 aircraft, but said it is quite clear that given Iranian rhetoric about the Jewish state, Israel does view that country as a real threat.

"I can certainly understand that, given the fact that the president of Iran has talked about wiping Israel off the map," he said. "So Israel does see Iran as an existential threat. But again, I am going to have to kick any questions about what was intended by this exercise, what its purpose was, what they hoped to accomplish, to the Israeli government. They're the competent officials to talk about those issues."

Israeli officials have declined comment on the reported exercise. However members of the Israeli government, including deputy prime minister and former military chief Shaul Mofaz have warned that Israel might be left with no choice but to attack, if Iran's nuclear program is not halted.

Israel staged a long-range air strike to destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1980, and last September it bombed a facility in northern Syria said by some analysts to have been a reactor being built with North Korean help.

Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but Israel and key Bush administration officials, among others, believe it is seeking a weapons capability.

The five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany (the P5-plus-One) last week formally presented Iran with an updated package of incentives, including civilian nuclear power assistance, if Iran halted its enrichment drive.

Spokesman McCormack said despite caustic comments from some officials in Tehran, Iran has said it will consider the plan and has not rejected it outright.

He also said the other track of the diplomatic strategy, disincentives, remains active with the European Union preparing new economic sanctions in case the P5-plus-One offer is turned down.

A senior official who spoke to reporters here said he did not think the Israeli military exercise would affect the Iran diplomacy, saying everyone involved in the diplomatic process understands the potential implications if Iran perfects nuclear weapons techniques.