On June 20, the New York Times revealed that more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets had taken part in joint training exercises with the Greek air force over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece.
The manoeuvres, code-named Glorious Spartan 08, took place between May 28 and June 12 and consisted of simulated aerial combat, attacks on terrestrial targets, aerial refuelling and search and rescue missions.
Although Israeli officials declined to discuss the details of the exercise, the manoeuvres’ code name gives the game away. Those who have read ancient history or, at least, seen the film 300, will recall the bravery of the Spartans in their wars with the Persians, the ancestors of modern Iran.
The scope of the exercises was also cause for concern.
The Israeli war planes flew more than 900 miles. This is more than enough for a long-range strike on Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz..
Israel has already carried out such unilateral attacks against suspected nuclear sites in the Middle East on two occasions – in Iraq in June 1981 and Syria in September 2007, Israeli jets bombed installations which Israel alleged could produce nuclear weapons.
Joint training exercises started on May 28. On June 6, former Israeli defence minister and now Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz warned: "If Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack."
On June 14, two days after joint training exercises had ended, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Iran to present an initiative by the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany. This required Iran to renounce its right to uranium enrichment in exchange for a set of political, economic and security incentives.
Six days later, US officials disclosed details of Glorious Spartan.
This timeline suggests that Israel is stepping up pressure on Iran at both a political and military level.
There is a qualitative difference between the attacks on Iraq and Syria and the potential attack on Iran. In the previous cases, there was no warning or diplomatic pressure. Instead, Israel achieved its goals by directly exercising military force, using surprise to its advantage.
In Iran’s case, though, Israel seems reluctant to attack, because it learnt a bitter lesson in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Israel’s air domination depends on the neutralisation of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) which are the main forms of anti-aircraft defence in neighbouring countries.
To be able to disrupt the SAM batteries, Israel needs to find out how they are operated and how to exploit weaknesses in their technology.
That explains why Greece was chosen for the joint operations. Greece, like Iran, possesses modern Russian-made S-300 and Tor-M1 SAMs. It seems that Israel used the manoeuvres to test out the radar and communication frequencies of these new weapons, in order to develop appropriate countermeasures. This is precisely how they dealt with these weapons’ predecessors and is a tactic that allowed it to triumph in the 1982 Bekaa Valley war.
Whether Israel attacks or not depends on the efficiency of diplomatic means to block Iran’s nuclear programme and whether Israel can find ways to attack Iran’s modern air defences.
It is still not clear whether Israeli claims over Iran’s nuclear programme are true.
In late May, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran’s suspected work on nuclear matters was a "matter of serious concern" and that the Iranians owed the agency "substantial explanations. "
On the other hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that there was no proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and a National Intelligence Estimate issued in December by US spy agencies asserted that Iran had suspended work on weapons design in late 2003.
Israel refuses to allow any of its Middle Eastern neighbours to obtain nuclear technology, irrespective of whether it is for military or peaceful purposes, while Israel itself is the only country in the Middle East that is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty..
Israel launched its nuclear plans half a century ago and it has maintained a policy of "nuclear ambiguity" ever since. Even after the disclosure of the secret activities of the nuclear reactor at Dimona by Israeli engineer Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli government kept referring to the reactor as a "textile factory."
During those years, Israel allowed no international inspections and fooled US inspectors by building fake walls to hide certain rooms. It is estimated that Israel possesses more than 100 nuclear bombs.
Within Greece, the joint Greek-Israeli training exercises have caused alarm. Traditionally, Greece has enjoyed friendly relations with the Arab and Persian world.
Greece was the only predominantly Christian European country that voted against the establishment of the state of Israel in the UN in 1947 and it was not until 1990 that Israel was officially recognised by Greece. A defence agreement was signed with Israel in 1994.
The fear is that actions that promote US and Israeli interests above others in the region might upset the balance and jeopardise the traditionally good relations that Greece has with the Muslim world.
The Communist parties of the countries involved have issued public statements condemning the escalation in tension in Middle East.
In a joint press release on June 25, the Communist Party of Greece and Communist Party of Israel called upon "the working class, the peace-loving people of (their) countries to mobilise to prevent a possible adventurism against Iran with the participation of (their) countries" and for "the peace and peoples’ movements, the progressive anti-imperialist forces of the region to condemn the imperialist plans and to empower the international solidarity among the peoples."
In a similar statement on June 21, the Tudeh Party of Iran called upon "all the progressive, democratic and peace-seeking forces of Iran and the world to raise their voices in unity and harmony to oppose any foolhardy adventure by anyone, related to the developments of (their) country and the region."