PARIS, 22 Dec. (IPS) The Islamic Republic of Iran and its archenemy Israel have engaged in a bitter war of words, following remarks by the Israel Defence Minister quoted as having threatened to attack Iranís nuclear installations.

Commander of the Iranian Air Forces warned Monday Israel that it would "dig its own grave" if it attacks Iran.

General Reza Pardis was reacting to Mr. Shaul Mofaz who, according to the Israeli influential newspaper Haíaretz of Sunday, in a radio chat from Jerusalem with Iranian listeners both inside and outside the country, had stated that Israel is considering an operation to destroy the nuclear capabilities of Iran.Photo

"An operation to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities if necessary is under consideration, Haíaretz had quoted Mr. Mofaz as having said last week on Israel Radioís Persian service, adding that if the need arises to destroy Iran's nuclear capability, "the necessary steps will be taken so that Iranian citizens will not be harmed".

The comments unleashed a flurry of violent reactions from Iranian officials, both military and clerics, including President Mohammad Khatami who said, "Israel canít do no damned thing on Iran".

But Israel Persian service, replaying parts of the talks, said on Monday that the Iranian-born Mofazís had been misquoted by Haíaretz and reactions from Iranian leaders to his remarks were "erroneous".

To a question of a listener wanting to know what Israel would do if threatened by Iranian nuclear bomb, Mofaz assured "Israel knows how to defend its citizens without harming Iranian people", according to the tape released by Israel Radio.

Mofaz welcomed Iranís signing of the Additional Protocol to the Non Proliferation Treaty, but at the same time voiced suspicions, saying that despite the document, Iran would not stop at reaching nuclear bomb.

"The threats of the Zionist regime hold no value or credit for us. The Zionist regime knows that the armed forces of the Islamic republic, in particular our air force, have reached such high capabilities that if one day it makes such a mistake, it would regret it as it would be digging its own grave in the region", Pardis said, adding "An attack by Israel would have serious consequences beyond the imagination of Israeli leaders".

Mofaz was born in Tehran and left Iran with his family when he was at the age nine. He said Israel bears no animosity toward the Iranian people. "The two countries had good relations until a few years ago, he noted, saying Israel has no aggressive plans against Iran".

With a community of more than 25.000, Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East. Officially recognised as religious minority, Jews in Iran are represented at the Majles and have their own schools and synagogues. The community, whose story in Iran dates to at least 4.000 years ago, was estimated at more than eight thousands before the Islamic revolution of 1979.

General Pardis was joined by Iranís Defence Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani, warning Mofaz that he "must know that if ever these threats become reality, no place in Israel will be safe for the leaders of the country, and the Zionist regime will pay a particularly high price".

"Although Mofazís statements were rapidly corrected by the Zionist regimeís radio, such threats are generally unrealistic and very unlikely, given that regimeís estimation of Iranís capability of a response", he added.

However, Shamkhani, quoted by the official news agency IRNA, described Mofaz's threats as "unreal and improbable" to him, because, he added, "Israel has full knowledge of Iran's capacity to respond".

Chairman of the Expediency Council (EC) Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Sunday played down the recent Israeli threats to attack Iran, stressing that Iranís response would be "very strong".

Hashemi Rafsanjani, in an interview with the Saudi daily "Al-Riyadh", said Israelís attacks would bear no result, and vowed that the Islamic Republic would strongly respond to any possible Israeli blitz.

"If Israel takes an "unwise" measure to attack Iran, it will not be able to do an important thing, and will receive a response that would make it regret what it has done," he said.

Though Iranís air force, a mix of ageing F-4 and Phantoms bought from the United States under the previous regime and various types of Russian-made war planes and bombers is not a great match to that of Israel, but it has developed a range of well-advanced missiles capable of carrying a nuclear device to Israel, military experts says.

Tehran, joined by most Arab leaders, has increased its pressures on the Jewish State to also sign the NPT and it is generally admitted that Israel has at least 200 atomic bombs in its sophisticated arsenal. ENDS ISRAEL IRAN THREATS 221203