Iran cleric says aggressors will get “slap in face”

Israel and its U.S. ally will receive a “slap in the face” from Iran if they speak of using force against the Islamic Republic, a hardline Iranian cleric said on Friday.

Citing unidentified U.S. officials, The New York Times reported on Friday that Israel carried out a large military exercise this month that appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Western states suspect Iran of secretly aiming to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran insists its nuclear facilities are intended to produce only electricity.

The United States and Israel have said they would prefer to solve the nuclear standoff through diplomacy but have not ruled out a military strike.

“If the enemies, particularly Israel and its American backers, adopt a language of force against Iran, they can be sure that they will receive a strong slap on the face from Iran,” Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran University, in a speech broadcast live on state radio.

“The Iranian nation is a logical and brave nation and its reply to logical methods will be logical.”

The newspaper said more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters took part in manoeuvres over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece in the first week of June. It said Israeli officials would not discuss the exercise.

The daily said the exercise appeared to be an effort to focus on long-range strikes and illustrates the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear programme.

A Pentagon official who the Times said was briefed on the exercise, said a goal was to send a clear message that Israel was prepared to act militarily if other efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium fail.

Iran has repeatedly warned it would launch medium-range missiles if attacked. Tehran says it has Shahab-3 missiles with a range of some 2,000 km (1,200 miles), meaning Israel, U.S. bases in the Gulf and foreign troops in Iraq lie within their range.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for ignoring council’s demands for the suspension of Tehran’s uranium enrichment programme, which could be used to make fuel for power plants or atomic weapons.

Iran said on Thursday it was ready to negotiate over a new package of economic incentives put forward by major powers seeking to persuade Tehran to curb its nuclear work.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Charles Dick)