October 8, 2009 / 2:27 PM / 10 years ago

Israel, U.S. to hold manoeuvres as Iran talks simmer

(Refiles to correct typo in headline)

TEL AVIV, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Israel and the United States will hold their biggest joint air-defence exercise next week, officials said, testing missile interceptors that would serve as a strategic bulwark in any future showdown with Iran.

The Oct. 12-16 manoeuvres, dubbed Juniper Cobra, will be overseen by Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, chief of the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and the most senior American officer to be involved in the biennial event, an Israeli official said on Thursday.

The first Juniper Cobra took place in 2001, when the Scud missiles of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq menaced Israel. Now Iran and its nuclear project are seen as the main threat, though both Israel and the United States played down links to their drill. "This exercise is not related to or in response to any world events," the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv said in a statement.

American forces taking part will include 17 ships and ground personnel operating the Aegis and THAAD missile interceptors, which will be meshed with Israel’s Arrow II missile-killer for computer-simulated tests, the Israeli official said.

Joint manoeuvres on such a scale underscore the depth of Israel-U.S. defence ties as Washington and five other major world powers try to build on their groundbreaking Oct. 1 nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The Islamic Republic denies seeking the bomb, but the lack of transparency around its designs and Tehran’s virulent rhetoric against the Jewish state have stirred war fears.

Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, has hinted at the possibility of attacking Iran if it deems diplomacy a dead end.

But some analysts believe that Israel’s military limitations, and American resistance to the idea of pre-emptive strikes, may force it into a more defensive posture with the help of its top ally. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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