Iran’s war threat is very real

Forget an October Surprise, a much worse one could come in September: Full-scale war between the United States and Iran may be far closer than the American public might imagine.

For Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani Wednesday warned frankly and openly that if his military commanders believed the United States was serious about attacking his country to destroy its nuclear power facility at Bushehr, or to topple its Islamic theocratic form of government, they would not sit back passively and wait for the U.S. armed forces to strike the first blow, as President Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq did in March 2003. They would strike first.

“We will not sit to wait for what others will do to us,” Shamkhani told an interviewer on the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television news network, which is widely watched throughout the Middle East.

“Some military commanders in Iran are convinced that preventive operations which the Americans talk about are not their monopoly.”

The Iranian defense minister was speaking in response to an increasing barrage of tough, even ominous statements from senior U.S. officials that Iranian leaders and many Middle East diplomats believe parallel the drumbeat of rhetoric that prepared the American public for the war in Iraq a year and a half ago.

On Aug. 8, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the world was “worried and suspicious” about Iran’s nuclear program and she made clear the Bush administration was determined not to let the Iranians develop nuclear weapons from their new Russian-built reactor. So seriously did Rice intend the message to be taken that she repeated it twice in the same day in separate interviews to different network news shows.

Just this Tuesday, one of the hottest hawks in the Bush administration, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton told a sympathetic audience at the right-wing Hudson Institute in Washington that the Iranian nuclear program had to be taken up by the U.N. Security Council. “To fail to do so would risk sending a signal to would-be proliferators that there are no serious consequences for pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programs,” he said. “We cannot let Iran, a leading sponsor of international terrorism, acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to Europe, most of central Asia and the Middle East, or beyond,” Bolton said. “Without serious, concerted, immediate intervention by the international community, Iran will be well on the road to doing so.”

Bolton’s tough talk came after reports that the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna appears unlikely to announce next month that Iran’s nuclear program contains military elements. Nor, according to these published reports, is the IAEA expected to recommend referring the Iranian nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council as Bolton and his administration colleagues clearly want.

The comments from Bolton and Rice come within weeks of leading neo-conservative pundits and activists in Washington proclaiming that Iran’s nuclear program had to be destroyed, even if waging war was the only way to do it.

Influential neo-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote July 23 column in The Washington Post: “The long awaited revolution (in Iran) is not happening. Which (makes) the question of pre-emptive attack all the more urgent. If nothing is done, a fanatical terrorist regime openly dedicated to the destruction of ‘the Great Satan’ will have both nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. All that stands between us and that is either revolution or pre-emptive attack.”

Krauthammer’s column was widely discussed in the Tehran press, further fueling the fears there that the United States may act in cahoots with Israel to launch a pre-emptive strike on the Iranian reactor. Iranians also remember that President George W. Bush included Iran with Iraq as fellow members of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech. Just over a year after that, he unleashed the U.S. armed forces to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Iranians therefore fear that the goal of Bush and his Pentagon hawks is now exactly what Krauthammer advocated in his July 23 column: to use the new, “strong fortress” of pro-American Iraq as the launch point to destabilize and topple the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both the desired counter-revolution in Iran and a U.S.-delivered or U.S.-backed pre-emptive strike “are far more likely to succeed with 146,000 American troops and highly sophisticated aircraft standing by just a few miles away in Iraq,” Krauthammer wrote.

In reality, however, Iraq is anything but a “strong fortress.” The embattled U.S. troops there are hunkered down, on the defensive, an undermanned, over-stretched, over-worked exhausted force isolated in a nation that has almost universally rejected them and about which they were deceived and given no adequate preparation whatsoever.

Indeed, if a full-scale war broke out with Iran, the United States might even have to send in hundreds of thousands of more troops to relieve and rescue its current over-extended force in Iraq, or go nuclear, or implement both extreme options in order to prevent current U.S. forces there from being cut off and even possibly over-run.

Shamkhani Wednesday made clear that this possibility had already occurred to his own military planners in Tehran. “The U.S. military presence will not become an element of strength at our expense,” he said. “The opposite is true because their forces would turn into a hostage.”

Shamkhani also made very clear that his country would regard any pre-emptive strike against the Bushehr reactor as a casus belli: sufficient cause to unleash full-scale, unrestricted war against the United States. “We will consider any strike against our nuclear installations as an attack on Iran as a whole and we will retaliate with all our strength,” he said.

Some political leaderships specialize in using tough talk that they never seriously mean to back up with equally ruthless actions. But the Iranians are not like that. They lost around a half-million dead to repel Saddam in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. So when Shamkhani threatens the prospect of a major war against the United States: Believe him.

Analysis: Iran, Israel exchange threats
By Modher Amin – UPI August 19, 2004
The dispute between Iran and Israel has escalated in recent weeks, with the officials in Tehran warning of striking back strongly should Israel launch an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities.

In the latest threat, a commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad-Baqer Zolqadr, warned Israel that it would “permanently forget about (its) Dimona nuclear center, if Israel fires one missile at Bushehr atomic power plant.” He talked of the “terrifying consequences” of such a move, which “Israel should be held responsible for.”

“Given the internal crises in the Zionist regime and its military, security and geographical vulnerability, Israel is not capable of attacking Iran and its treats are only propaganda,” Zolqadr said, adding, the threats are aimed at depriving Iran of its “indisputable right” to achieve nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

The Revolutionary Guards, or Sepah-e Pasdaran, act in parallel with the regular armed forces, and are well equipped with their navy and air forces as well as ground troops.

Dimona, in the Negev desert, is allegedly where Israel produces weapons-grade plutonium for its estimated 200 nuclear warheads.

Iran’s controversial nuclear plan, with the construction of a reactor at the southern port city of Bushehr, has sparked serious debate within international community, with Israel and the United States seeing it as a cover for nuclear weapons development.

Iran claims it does not have a secret nuclear program, and is only seeking to fulfill its growing demand for power. It says it intends to produce some 7,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity by the year 2020.

Israel, however, has never confirmed nor denied possessing a nuclear arsenal.

“Of course, we have to develop our defensive capacities — passive, active, reactive,” Israeli Labor member of parliament and a former deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, was quoted as having said recently.

Commenting on a possible attack by his country against Iranian nuclear targets, Sneh denied there were any such plans “on the agenda.” He stressed, however, that “We have to strengthen our defense shields against possible Iranian attack.”

Analysts say, for years, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was seen as the main threat to the Jewish state, but that place may have now been taken by Iraq’s neighbor.

Warning that Iran may become a nuclear power within the next three or four years, Israel wants the world to act. It says, at the same time, that if diplomacy failed, it would act alone.

“Israel has many, many capabilities,” Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad, Israel’s international intelligence agency, was quoted as having said.

“And in the past, Israel has carried out long-range military operations, like when we bombed the nuclear facility of Iraq (at Osirak in 1981). And since then one can imagine that we’ve improved our capabilities.”

But, Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz, who is now Israel’s defense minister, does not talk of any preemptive attack on Iran. When asked about a possible Iranian attack, he answered: “We will know how to defend ourselves.”

On Sunday, a few days after the Islamic republic announced it had conducted “a successful test” of an upgraded version of its conventional medium-range Shahab-3 missile, the Revolutionary Guards chief, Yadollah Javani, warned that all Israeli military and nuclear sites were within range.

“The entire Zionist territory, including its nuclear establishments and atomic munitions are now within the range of Iran’s advanced missiles,” he said, quoted by the Iranian press.

The Shahab, meaning “meteor” in Persian, is thought to have a range of 810 miles, with the potential to strike anywhere in Israel.

The Iranian Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani, also confirmed the test had been conducted, but denied that Iran was building a new, more advanced Shahab-4 missile.

“The Israelis are trying hard to improve the capacity of their missiles, and we are also trying to improve the Shahab-3,” he said.

On July 28, Israel tested its Arrow II missile, making it clear the improved anti-missile system was aimed squarely at fending off any attack by arch-foe Iran. But, Iran maintains its missile program should work as a deterrent only.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Qatari-based al-Jazeera satellite television channel, Shamkhani talked of the possibility of an American or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, saying, any strike will be considered “an attack on Iran as a whole, and we will retaliate with all our strength.”

Shamkhani also said it was not possible “practically” to destroy Iran’s nuclear programs as they were the outcome of national skills “which cannot be eliminated by military means.”

He also warned that the Islamic republic would consider itself no longer bound by its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency in the event of an attack.

“The execution of such threats would mean that our cooperation with the IAEA led to feeding information about our nuclear facilities to the attacking side, which means that we would no longer be bound by any of our obligations,” he said.

The U.N. watchdog, with Iran’s dossier on its agenda, is due to meet in mid-September. The last of a group of its inspectors left the country last week.

Diplomats in Vienna were quoted Tuesday as having said that the agency’s 35-member board of directors would not mention in their report whether Iran’s nuclear activities are of a military nature, nor will they recommend bringing the case before the U.N. Security Council.

The United States, however, insists that Iran’s nuclear program must be referred to the council for possible sanctions.

“We … believe that the Iranian nuclear weapons program must be taken up by the U.N. Security Council,” said John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, at a forum on U.S. policy toward Iran at the Hudson Institute on Tuesday.

Calling for the international community to isolate Iran over the program, Bolton further said: “We cannot let Iran, a leading sponsor of international terrorism, acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to Europe, most of central Asia and the Middle East, or beyond.”

“Without serious, concerted immediate intervention by the international community, Iran will be on the road to doing so,” Bolten added.

Iran, however, seems to be determined to proceed with its nuclear program. The country’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Iranian ambassadors at a meeting in Tehran Sunday, “The Islamic republic will continue on the reasonable path which will result in the peaceful use of nuclear energy without concerning itself about all this fuss and bother.”

Khamenei stressed the need for Iran to convince the IAEA of its intentions as the U.N. body has been investigating Iran’s nuclear program for more than a year.

Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami last week said his country “will not seek permission from anyone” to go on with what he called “a civilian nuclear program.”

“If the international community wants to deprive us of our primordial right, we will not give up our national right and our country should be prepared to pay the price,” he said in an apparent reference to threats of possible U.N. sanctions.

Late July, Iran announced it had resumed making parts for advanced centrifuge designs, known as P2, which are used for enriching uranium. The move was considered a blow to European efforts to limit the scope of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Iran, under an agreement reached last year with Britain, France and Germany, agreed to allow tougher inspections, file a comprehensive declarations of its nuclear activities, and suspend uranium enrichment. Iran said at the time the suspension was only “temporary” aimed at “building confidence” with the IAEA.

“When we agreed to suspend (uranium enrichment), that did not mean we were renouncing it,” Khatami said, adding, “We have not enriched, and if we do, that will be purely experimental, to test our capabilities.”

Tensions Escalate Between Israel, Iran
By Josef Federman – Associated Press August 20, 2004
Iran threatened this week to attack Israel’s nuclear facilities. Israel ominously warned that it “knows how to defend itself.” Tensions between the two arch enemies have suddenly escalated, underlining the other great enmity that has been bubbling on the sidelines of the Arab-Israeli conflict for more than two decades.

Suspicions that the Iranian regime is moving forward with a nuclear arms program deeply worry Israel, which considers Iran the greatest threat to the Jewish state. Israeli officials say they want to avoid escalating the situation, however, and there is no sign Israel is building up for an attack like the one that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

Experts say the two countries are unlikely to go to war anytime soon, despite the heated-up rhetoric coming out of Iran and the intensified efforts by Israel to isolate the Iranian regime diplomatically.

Iran and Israel once had close ties, but they have been foes since the 1979 revolution that ousted Iran’s shah and installed an Islamic government. Iranian leaders routinely call for Israel’s destruction, while Israelis accuse Iran of supporting anti-Israel terrorists.

The heightened tensions arose from the U.S.-led campaign to organize international pressure on Iran to rein in its nuclear program.

While recently confirming they are working with technology that can be used to produce weapons-grade uranium, the Iranians insist their program’s sole purpose is the peaceful generation of power and angrily complain about being under siege.

Last month, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said Iranians would “crush” Israel if it attacked the Persian state. Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, upped the ante this week, telling Al-Jazeera television that his government might launch pre-emptive strikes to protect its nuclear facilities if they were threatened.

“We will not sit to wait for what others will do to us,” he said, adding that some Iranian generals believe the doctrine of pre-emption is “not limited to Americans.”

The warning was seen as aimed at Israel, alluding to the Israeli strike on Saddam Hussein’s reactor two decades ago.

A senior Israeli official responded that Israel’s government was ready for all eventualities.

“We’re not seeking war with Iran. But if a real threat materializes, Israel will know how to defend itself,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reflecting long-standing Israeli policy of not talking publicly about matters involving nuclear arms.

Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, but never formally confirms or denies it has them. It believes this policy of ambiguity is the best way to deter attack, by scaring regional foes about the possibility of nuclear annihilation while denying those nations a rationale for also seeking such weapons.

Despite the tensions, experts don’t foresee things boiling over.

“I think it is a serious confrontation. The issue is who can do what about it,” said Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center in Washington and a former Clinton administration official who is an expert on Iran.

“On the Israeli side, it is not clear that they have the military capabilities or intelligence knowledge to significantly set back the Iranian program. The Iranians learned from Osirak to disperse and copy everything they have (in their nuclear program). I don’t think that Israel can do much.”

Sammy Salama, a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, noted that the military situation is different, too.

“Iraq didn’t have any way of striking back,” Salama said, alluding to Iran’s long-range Shahab-3 missiles, which are capable of reaching Israel. “I think Iran, in essence, is saying, ‘We are not Iraq.’”

Iran Urges Meeting on Iraq ‘Catastrophe’
By Ali Akbar Dareini – Associated Press Tehran August 20, 2004
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called on Muslim countries Friday to hold an urgent meeting to discuss the “catastrophe” in Iraq, particularly the 2-week standoff in the holy city of Najaf.

Khatami urged the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference to hold an emergency summit and said immediate action should be taken to end the escalating violence in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, where militiamen loyal to militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“What is happening in Iraq is a spiritual and human catastrophe and immediate action must be taken to stop the spread of the catastrophe, particularly in Najaf,” Khatami said in a telephone conversation with the head of the OIC Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

On Friday, the Najaf uprising, centered on the revered Imam Ali Shrine, appeared to be drawing to an end as militants from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army removed weapons from the holy site.

The militants had been using the shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest, as a hideout while attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces. Earlier Friday they offered to give control of the shrine to Shiite religious authorities, who accepted the offer in principle.

It was unclear how Friday’s apparent easing of the crisis in Najaf would affect Khatami’s summit call.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi urged countries neighboring Iraq to hold an urgent meeting on the Najaf crisis.

Kharrazi first raised his meeting idea in a telephone call to Jordanian counterpart Marwan Muasher on Wednesday, but Jordan’s response was not immediately made public.

The Syrian government supported Kharrazi’s call, Syria’s official news agency quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official as saying. Syria has been a loud opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

In Tehran, Iranians staged street protests Friday over the violence in Najaf, the third holiest city to Shiite Muslims after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and condemned “the slaughter of the Iraqi people and the desecration of holy sites and cities of the country by the U.S. military in Iraq.”

The demonstrators also described Iraq’s interim government as “illegitimate” and a “puppet” of the United States, IRNA reported, and urged Muslim countries to dispatch a military force to defend Najaf’s holy sites.

In his conversation with OIC chief Badawi, who is also Malaysia’s prime minister, Khatami said the Iraqi interim government was facing a difficult situation in Najaf and that Iran was interested in seeing a stable Iraq.

“Allowing these conditions to continue and keeping silent in the face of these events will create grater problems for us,” Khatami warned.

It was unclear if a meeting would be held, but Iran’s call reflects the growing concern in the Middle East over violence in Iraq and, in particular, Najaf.