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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

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