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Behind diplomacy, Iran sees a fight coming

As concerns mount over its nuclear program, fear of a US strike is spurring Iran to strengthen its defenses.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2005


From Washington, the rhetoric calls for diplomatic solutions to the nuclear standoff with Iran. But Tehran also hears a growing drumbeat for war that echoes the build-up to US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

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In preparation for any strike on its budding nuclear facilities, Iran is making clear that the price will be high - burnishing its military forces, boosting its missile program, and warning of a painful response against US and Israeli targets in the region.

"They see a fight coming, regardless of what they do, so they are getting ready for it," says a European diplomat in Tehran, referring to ideologues who think a US invasion is a "very real prospect." Even moderate conservatives fear the "Iraqization of the Iran dossier," says the diplomat. The result is that Iran is "constantly trying to project strength" and is developing a new doctrine of asymmetric warfare.

President Bush, who included Iran in his "axis of evil," has called speculation about a strike "ridiculous," but says all options are open. Earlier this month, the US added modest incentives of WTO membership and spare aircraft parts to bolster Britain, France, and Germany as they negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. But the US last week refused to consider a security guarantee, as proposed by the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency.

Experts say Iran has many assets to draw upon in case of attack:

• Iran has been upgrading its Shahab-3 missile, which can reach Israel and US forces in the region. Iran's armed forces have conducted high-profile military exercises since last fall.

• Iran is reported to have set up sophisticated air defenses around its nuclear facilities. US officials in February said pilotless US drones had been sent from Iraq since last year to sample the air for traces of uranium enrichment. Iran has confirmed that it is excavating deep underground tunnels to protect some nuclear facilities.

• Ukraine's new pro-West lawmakers are investigating "smuggled" shipments of a dozen Soviet-era Kh-55 cruise missiles - designed to carry a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead 1,860 miles, virtually undetectable by radar - to Iran in 2001. A Russia-Iran satellite launch deal is to provide digital maps for more accurate targeting, according to Moscow analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

• Western diplomats are raising concerns that Iran is "quietly building a stockpile" of sophisticated military equipment, such as 2,000 armor-piercing sniper rifles and night-vision goggles, acquired through legal purchases as well as under a UN anti-drug program, the Associated Press reported last Friday.

Beyond this, civilian hard-liners have been recruiting suicide bombers to kill US troops in Iraq, or Israelis. Though derided by some officials as not serious, by last June 15,000 had signed up, according to Knight-Ridder.

"It is code to America: 'If you hit us, we will play dirty, using Hizbullah and volunteers to hit the US across the region," says the European diplomat, echoing analysts who note that Iran can swiftly destabilize Iraq, activate militant cells, and close the Strait of Hormuz to oil traffic. "There is an enormous danger of miscalculation."

That possibility, and the examples of US-engineered regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, are causing Iran to hedge its bets.

"If I was a student of [Prussian military strategist Karl von] Clausewitz, I would do as the US does: I would talk incentives, and [at the same time] design a theater of war against the enemy," says Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister who heads the Institute for Caspian Studies in Tehran.

In response, says Mr. Maleki, Iranians are focusing on three possibilities: a surgical strike on nuclear facilities; a three-month rolling air attack; and a six-month "troops on the ground" option.

"Iran must be very, very cautious to avoid any attack," says Maleki, who maintains ties to Iran's leadership. "We have conventional weapons designed for neighboring threats like Saddam Hussein and the Taliban - not to fight a superpower. But we must defend ourselves."