Thursday, August 19, 2004

Is Iran headed for war with the United States and Israel?

Iran's brinkmanship . . .

Is Iran headed for war with the United States and Israel? Judging by recent news reports, one could be forgiven for thinking so.

In the past several days, sabre-rattling, primarily from the Iranian side, has grown deafening. Iran "will not sit with arms folded to wait for what others will do to us," Iranian Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani said on Al-Jazeera television Wednesday. In a direct reference to U.S. President George W. Bush's doctrine of pre-emption, Rear Admiral Shamkhani threatened an Iranian first strike in the event that Iranian commanders believe a U.S. or Israeli assault on Iran's nuclear facilities is imminent. "America is not the only one present in the region," he said. "We are also present, from Khost to Kandahar in Afghanistan; we are present in the Gulf and we can be present in Iraq."

Earlier, a senior Iranian military officer said that if Israel bombed its emerging nuclear facility at Bushehr, in a repeat of Israel's pre-emptive strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981, Iran would attack Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona. (Though Israel neither confirms nor denies its nuclear status, the Dimona plant is thought to provide weapons-grade plutonium for an estimated 200 Israeli nuclear warheads.) Amid growing international concern over Iran's burgeoning nuclear program, there has been much speculation that Israel contemplates just such a pre-emptive strike. The result, if the threats and counterthreats are to be believed, would be the catastrophic wider Middle Eastern war that the more pessimistic analysts have feared for the past three years.

The public war of words must be taken with a grain of salt. Many analysts believe an Osirak-style strike on Iran is a practical impossibility, both because the country's nuclear facilities are widely dispersed and because the United States, which already has its hands full in Iraq, would oppose it. The last thing President Bush wants in an election year is a broader Mideast war. The U.S. stance so far has been one of pointedly diplomatic bellicosity. John R. Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, is pressing for the matter to be brought before the United Nations Security Council in hopes of isolating Iran economically, not of launching an invasion.

That said, there is cause for concern. Last June, Iran reneged on a commitment to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Last month, according to the United States, Iranian officials said the country could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb within a year. (Most international estimates suggest an Iranian nuclear bomb is between three and five years away.) A week ago, Iran tested the Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of 1,300 kilometres.

Clearly Iran is engaging in brinkmanship, almost certainly predicated on the assumption that the looming presidential election and the war in Iraq have tied the United States' hands. The fact that the mullahs are probably bluffing -- Iran would stand no chance in a military showdown with Israel, let alone the United States -- does not make their posturing any less dangerous. For the U.S. election will be over in November, and Iraq is moving, albeit haltingly, toward greater democracy and stability. Saddam Hussein bluffed, allowing the world to believe he posed an imminent threat. He's now locked in a cell.

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