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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.

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Talking up that defense is almost daily news in Iran, where supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Iranians are "accustomed to the harsh and threatening language of the enemy," and told Iranian nuclear officials last week to ignore US threats and continue their work. The Revolutionary Guards "must be ready all the time," he said, "to stand up to ... acts of bullying."

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Analysts say any military action by the US could boost unpopular conservatives.

"Iranians are very patriotic, and though there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the regime, they oppose an attack," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University with close ties to the Khatami government. "It would be like Sept. 11 in the US, which brought the neocons into power. A US attack could bring our neocons into power."

Many experts agree that a military attack aimed at nuclear sites could propel Iran's leadership to kick out UN inspectors and withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

As a signatory of the NPT, Iran has been relatively cooperative so far. Despite numerous Iranian reporting violations, and delays visiting certain sites, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says its inspectors have found no evidence of a weapons program.

Adding to concern in the West, the Asian Wall Street Journal reported last week that US intelligence has received tens of thousands of pages of Farsi-language designs and test data, dated from 2001 to 2003, to modify the Shahab-3 missile to carry a "black box" that, the report says, US experts "believe is almost certainly a nuclear warhead."

Similar leaks about Iraq's alleged weapons activities prior to the invasion proved crucial to making the case for war, but were later disproved. The Journal reports that US officials first thought "the find might be disinformation, perhaps by Israel," but "are now persuaded ... the documents are real."

A complete 14-month reassessment of US intelligence on WMD threats ordered by the White House, and using pre-war errors about Iraq as a case study - is to be presented to President Bush Thursday. A lengthy classified section is reported to have found serious gaps in US knowledge of Iran's programs.

"Nobody knows exactly how they are doing it, where they're doing it, and how far along they are - all the stuff which is critical to know if you were to launch a strike," says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Rather than setting back the nuclear program, [a strike] could accelerate it," says Mr. Pollack, author of "The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America." "That's actually sinking in with the [Bush] administration."

Diplomats in Tehran say the US and Europe last month hammered out a two-page agreement on how to "march together" in dealing with Iran - a big change for an administration that has long dismissed the European initiative.

But such moves come amid a host of reports from the US and Israel of US special forces operating clandestinely in Iran already, searching for evidence of a nuclear weapons program; the use of unmanned drones; and even Israeli commandos training for their own strike dressed in Revolutionary Guard uniform and using dogs strapped with explosives.

Showing improved abilities is part of Iran's deterrent strategy, though most equipment is "aging or second rate and much of it is worn," Anthony Cordesman, a veteran Mideast military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in December. Even the Soviet KH-55 missiles delivered to Iran may have been substandard, Ukrainian defense attorneys now say, though Iran could reverse-engineer them.

Still, Iran has the largest military in the region, with 540,000 active troops and 350,000 more in reserves. In addition to more than 1,600 battle tanks and 1,500 other armored vehicles, Mr. Cordesman writes, "there is considerable evidence that [Iran] is developing both a long-range missile force and a range of weapons of mass destruction."

Ironically, any strike could bury Iran's already weakened moderates. "This action will really work against democracy and reformers in Iran, and I believe the Americans know that," says Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister and adviser to Khatami. "If we are pessimists, we would say they want hard-liners to [solidify] control."