Confrontation escalates between Iran and Israel
Iran tested the Shahab-3 missile, which could hit Israel or US Mideast bases.
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Iranian TV showed the rockets taking off from desert launch pads. The military display included the latest version of Iran's longest-range missile, the Shahab-3 that can strike Israel and US bases with its 1,250-mile range.
The upgrade in saber rattling on all sides – from rhetoric to military exercises – increases the possibility that a miscalculation from Iran, Israel, or the US could result in war, analysts say.
"This does not mean there is going to be war in the Middle East, [but] it means that the situation is more dangerous, and it means that miscalculation now could actually have a horrendous result – a result that I don't believe the Israelis or the Iranians or the US ... want," says Charles Heyman, a British military analyst and editor of the annual "Armed Forces of the United Kingdom."
"Nobody wants armed confrontation in that part of the world except for maybe half a dozen Iranian crazies, half a dozen American crazies, and half a dozen Israeli crazies," says Mr. Heyman. "Everybody else wants these people to talk this one through without going to war."
The missile tests are a response to an Israeli air force exercise last month in which 100 aircraft rehearsed for long-haul strikes over the eastern Mediterranean.
The exercise was a signal to Iran, Pentagon officials said, that Israel was capable of striking Iran's nuclear facilities. US warships and allied navies wrapped up a five-day oil protection exercise in the Persian Gulf this week and President Bush has not ruled out military action against Iran.
Heyman put the chances of war at 20 percent before the Israeli air force exercise, then pushed it to 30 percent after. Though Iran's missiles are not believed to have pinpoint accuracy, the missile test moved the chances of war higher, he figures, to 40 percent.
"They look good and they sound good," Heyman says, but without a nuclear or biological warhead "they are no more capable, and no more of a major threat to Israel than Saddam Hussein's SCUDs. They were a threat of sorts, but were not going to bring down the Israeli state."
That view is echoed by Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel's antiballistic missile program.
"The photographs released today indicate that they fired old Shahab missiles, the kinds they launched in 1998," says Mr. Rubin. "I think that the main consumer for this launch is the Iranians themselves…. Why should we respond? What is really new here? This is just saber rattling."
The tests come against a backdrop of increasingly incendiary rhetoric from all sides but also signals of moderation and willingness to negotiate.
"We warn the enemies who intend to threaten us with military exercises and empty psychological operations that our hand will always be on the trigger and our missiles will always be ready to launch," Iran's Revolutionary Guard air forces commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, said Wednesday.
He said Iran had thousands of missiles ready to launch at "specific and predetermined targets," and that the exercise would "demonstrate our resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language."
Senior officers also warned this week that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf bottleneck through which 40 percent of the world's oil passes, even though Iran's shaky economy also depends on continued oil sales.