Will Israel attack Iran?
While Americans focused this fall on the presidential campaign, the rhetorical conflict between the Middle East's two most formidable military powers steadily deepened.
Since last summer, Israeli officials have repeatedly threatened to attack Iran's nuclear energy facilities to prevent the Islamic republic from obtaining atomic weapons. Iranian leaders, while denying ambitions to become a nuclear power, have insisted on their right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. They have promised to respond to any Israeli attack with a barrage of its Shahab-3 missiles to "wipe Israel from the face of the earth."
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Iran's announcement on Sunday that it would suspend uranium reprocessing, a key step in developing nuclear weapons, marked a break from the saber rattling of recent months. European officials who negotiated the deal were quick to hail the agreement as a step in the right direction. And, in a rare break with the Bush administration, the British government is signaling that it will not support military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Israeli commentators, preoccupied with the post-Arafat transition in Palestinian politics, have mostly ignored the latest developments. But the story is front and center in the Iranian press, where the agreement is controversial thanks to the Persian version of America's famed red state-blue state divide.
On one side are Iran's conservatives. Like red-state Americans, they tend to favor infusing public life with traditional religious values, harbor deep suspicions of international organizations and support increased defense spending. They criticize the suspension of uranium processing as an unnecessary concession to untrustworthy foreigners.
On the other side are Iran's more cosmopolitan reformists. Like blue-state Americans, they tend to favor less religious involvement in daily life and see international engagement as essential to the country's future. They say Iran's nuclear diplomacy will bolster Iran's security by fortifying its international standing.
Iran's conservative media, led by the Tehran daily newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami (in Farsi), strongly opposed any negotiated settlement leading to the suspension of uranium enrichment. Last week, the paper said "the US cannot do a damn thing" about Iran's nuclear program. "Iran has bloodied the US nose before," the paper added in a not-so-subtle reference to the taking of American hostages in 1979.
Professor Hamid Mowlanam, writing in another conservative daily, Kayhan (in Farsi) argued that "America and the big Western European countries basically oppose the Islamic Republic of Iran's scientific advancement, especially in the missile and nuclear industries." He said the United States was using the nuclear issue "as a pretext to weaken our system." (The translations come from the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, an office of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.)
But in the more liberal Iran Daily, the agreement was favorably presented as international validation of Iran's peaceful nuclear intentions.
"The good omen is that Europe has recognized all the rights of Iran in this agreement," said Hassan Rohani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. "In the not-so-distant past they may have referred to Iran's rights but would not have recognized them in an official manner."
Iran Daily Columnist Mohammad Taqavi called the agreement "a minus for America".
Iranian officials emphasized that the move was a voluntary confidence-building measure and that they had not conceded their most important principle: that Iran has the right to develop nuclear technology.
The editors of the Iran News acknowledged that "a number of powerful elements and factions" oppose the agreement.
"Nevertheless, the conventional thinking is that the system made the right choice in line with the country's national security interests. The fact that most top-tier officials of the Islamic Republic including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni and President Mohammad Khatami supported the just reached agreement bolsters this view."