US, Israel delay joint military exercise amid tensions with Iran

The United States and Israel have pushed back a joint military exercise that was scheduled for the spring amid escalating tensions with Iran over that country’s nuclear program.

Israeli media reported that the drill was being pushed back into the second half of 2012. According to one unnamed Israeli official, the United States asked to delay the drill so it did not heighten tensions with Iran, Ynetnews reported.

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A U.S. official told The Hill that the delay had nothing to do with concerns over Iran and that Israel requested to postpone the drill.

An Israeli official told Reuters that the delay was “for a host of reasons, mainly logistical, but not the reason you cited [tensions with Iran].”

Separately, a spokesman for U.S. European Command said it "is not at all uncommon for routine exercises to be postponed."

"There were a variety of factors at play in this case, but leaders from both sides believe that optimum participation by all units is best achieved later in the year," Capt. John Ross said.

The United States and Israel planned the exercise, named Austere Challenge 12, to be the largest joint missile defense exercise ever between the two countries, involving thousands of U.S. and Israeli soldiers.

But Iran had stepped up its own military exercises when the drill was announced two weeks ago, and tensions have continued to escalate since then. Iran announced it was moving nuclear operations underground, sentenced a former U.S. Marine to death and saw one of its nuclear scientists assassinated.

Iran blamed U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies for the assassination, which occurred Wednesday. U.S. officials categorically denied involvement, but Israel has not.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is traveling to Israel this week to meet with military officials.

Tensions between Iran and the West have ratcheted up in recent weeks over Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States and allies say is geared toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes.

In response to economic sanctions, Iran threatened last month to close the Strait of Hormuz, prompting U.S. officials to say they would not allow Iran to close the strait, a vital oil shipping passageway.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz and obtaining nuclear weapons were both “red lines” that the United States would not allow to occur, not ruling out military action to stop them.

This story was posted at 10:36 a.m. and updated at 12:21 p.m.