Confrontation escalates between Iran and Israel

Iran tested the Shahab-3 missile, which could hit Israel or US Mideast bases.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iran tested nine missiles Wednesday in a warning to the United States and Israel that it would retaliate if attacked over its nuclear programs.

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.

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"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.

On Tuesday an aide to Iran's supreme religious leader told naval units that "the Zionist regime is putting White House leaders under pressure to stage a military strike against Iran," said Ali Shirazi. "If they do such a stupid thing, Tel Aviv and the US Navy [in the Persian Gulf] will be set on fire as Iran's first targets."

Israeli ministers have likewise declared that Israeli military strikes could be "unavoidable" if Iran's declared nuclear program makes any more progress on centrifuge technology. Iran says its efforts are for peaceful energy production; US, Israeli, and some Western officials say Iran aims for an atomic bomb.

"The United States is frankly unlikely to start anything with Iran for the rest of the Bush administration, but at the same time, almost for that reason, the Israelis are really getting very bothered and it's certainly possible that they might do something," says Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford in Britain.

Israel probably sees two "windows of opportunity" closing, he says: the first, the deployment in Iran of new Russian air defense missiles in as little as two months, that could increase the risk to Israeli pilots; and second, the end of the Bush era.

"The bottom line from the Israeli perspective, and one can understand it, is they are not prepared to see any other state limit their nuclear monopoly in the region," says Mr. Rogers, author of a 2006 report "Iran: Consequences of a War" for the Oxford Research Group. "I do think the next four to five months represent a period of danger, but that danger is far more likely to come … from Israel rather than the US."

Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, says Israelis "don't see this as a provocation; they see it as part of the Iranian attempt to enhance their capabilities to reach Israel and even Europe beyond it."

"We're on a course for clashes already…. Our military is preparing for military action, and everybody knows it already," says Mr. Inbar, noting that several factors will influence Israel's calculations.

"There's an enrichment process clock, there's an American elections clock, and our own political system's clock," says Inbar. "Frankly, I don't believe that diplomacy works at this stage…. From my understanding, the Iranians are very keen to get the bomb. Only military action can prevent them from completing their uranium enrichment facilities."

The tests proved fodder for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Eastern Europe to sign a missile defense deal with the Czech Republic, and still try to convince a skeptical Poland to take part. She said the tests were "evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one."

"Those who say that there is no Iranian threat against which to be building missile defense perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians about … the range of the missiles that they test-fired," Ms. Rice said in Bulgaria.

The White House said the Iranian tests were a "provocation" and that Iran should "refrain from further missile tests if they truly seek to gain the trust of the world."

But Iran's firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday dismissed the possibility of war, saying in Malaysia that it would be "political suicide" for President Bush to start a war with Iran.

Ilene R. Prusher contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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