Target Iran: How Likely Is a U.S. First Strike?

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; 10:00 AM

As President Bush embarks on his second term in office, "the world already has a clue [as] to what to expect from his foreign policy over the next few years," says a leading German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung (in German): "Iran, Iran, Iran."

Online commentators from London to Tehran to Tel Aviv agree. Many say the possibility of military conflict between the United States and Iran, which Washington believes seeks to develop nuclear weapons, is now growing. While verbal warfare between Washington and Tehran is nothing new, international pundits point to a number of recent developments, large and small, that suggest rhetorical bombshells could give way to the real thing.

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Vice President Cheney's comment on Inauguration Day that Iran's nuclear program put it "right at the top of the list" of global trouble spots is one sign, pundits say. Another sign was Seymour Hersh's story in the New Yorker magazine reporting that the White House had authorized covert commando missions to identify targets inside Iran.

Yet another signal of deepening conflict was the dismissive response of Iranian leaders.

"We are eagerly looking for the Americans commandos to come to Iran since they are chicks which would rapidly be picked up by our eagles," declared Iran's Intelligence Minister, according to a report from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service.

Iran, the largest country in the Middle East with a population of 67 million, has political and military assets throughout the region, noted Reuters in a story published in Iran News. "Tehran has ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel or U.S. bases in the Gulf and can easily stir up violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine through proxy agents and militant groups it backs."

Optimists see a standoff that will enable European diplomats to forge a negotiated settlement in which the Iranian government renounces its nuclear ambitions in return for enhanced trade relations. Pessimists see enormous potential for miscalculation between two confident and ideologically hostile governments that have not had diplomatic relations for a quarter century.

Concern is growing in Britain where a weekend editorial in the Sunday Mirror tabloid declared "Count Us Out of Iran War. "

"Amid fears that President George W Bush's administration may seek Britain's backing for a new conflict," the Times of London reported Sunday that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw would bring a 200-page dossier arguing against a military strike on Iranian nuclear weapon facilities to his Monday meeting with Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice in Washington.

The European Union still believes that a negotiated settlement is possible, reports Deutsche Welle, the German broadcast network. Just last week, European representatives met with Iranian counterparts in Brussels to discuss a possible trade agreement, something that Iran has long been striving for.

"But the EU cannot and will not forever play the role of the good cop while the U.S. holds a big stick in its hand." Deutsche Welle added that German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer "has repeatedly told the regime in Teheran that it may be miscalculating the EU's ability to hinder the U.S. from using military force."

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, according to Aljazeera.net, said "that the possibility of an attack was very low because Washington was preoccupied with Iraq."

In Israel, the government has long warned that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose a threat to the Jewish state. Iran's nuclear program is close to the "point of no return," said Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Dagan, head Israeli's foreign intelligence agency, said Iran will no longer need outside or international help to enrich uranium for use in atomic weapons, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Labor Party member of the Knesset and former Mossad chief, Danny Yatom said that a nuclear Iran "is a danger to the entire world." He said that Cheney's statement last week intimating that Israel or the U.S. would act first "was designed to push the Europeans into getting involved." In 1981 Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor where Saddam Hussein was seeking to produce nuclear weapons. The Israeli government, which hopes to maintain its position as the only nuclear power in the Middle East, has not ruled out a similar attack on Iran.

The Bush administration, wrote Amir Oren in the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, "is using the possibility of an Israeli operation against Iran to threaten Tehran, while shaking off American responsibility for that kind of escalation."

Oren argued that Washington wants "to remind the Iranians that their bluff in the nuclear poker game is liable to fall apart in the face of a card not part of the European deck -- the Israeli joker. "

What Iran lacks, warn commentators in Iran's reformist press, is a political strategy to thwart President Bush's emphasis on democratic reform. The Iranian reformists, led by President Khatami, were popular back in the late 1990s but have been steadily marginalized in recent years by the hard-liners in control of the courts and security agencies.

"The unavoidable reality . . . [is that] different policies and multilateral viewpoints are required for confronting America," said the reformist daily Shargh (in Farsi). "More effective behavior patterns and moral justifications are required for coming face to face with hostile idealists" in the White House."

A front-page editorial for the Iran Daily was even more explicit.

"What can prevent the American hawks from flying in the Iranian skies is full-scale public participation on the political scene. This will only materialize when the people are assured that Iranian officials are committed to respect their rights and fulfill their demands. "

Left unsaid was the point that the religious hard-liners who refused to cede power to Khatami are hardly likely to liberalize in the face of explicit threats from the United States and Israel.

The growing impasse between Washington and Tehran, concluded Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, "has a whiff of war."

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