By Molly Moore and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 27, 2006
PARIS, April 26 -- Escalating the threats between Washington and Tehran, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Wednesday that his country would strike U.S. targets around the world in the event it is attacked over its refusals to curb its nuclear program.
"If the U.S. ventured into any aggression on Iran, Iran will retaliate by damaging U.S. interests worldwide twice as much as the U.S. may inflict on Iran," Khamenei said in a speech to a workers' assembly, according to the official news agency IRNA.
His statement adds to a campaign of defiance by senior Iranian officials in advance of a report expected Friday by the U.N. atomic watchdog agency, which analysts predict will cite Iran for defying U.N. Security Council demands to halt its uranium enrichment program.
The heightened tensions between the United States and Iran have helped drive oil prices to record highs and have set in motion intense diplomatic meetings aimed at heading off greater destabilization in the Middle East.
In a spate of statements this week, Iranian officials have also threatened to cut oil production, export nuclear technology, bar international nuclear monitors, make their nuclear program entirely secret and withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
While Bush administration officials have said they have no plans to attack Iran, they have repeatedly said they have not ruled out that step.
U.S. military experts are confident that U.S. forces could carry out extensive airstrikes against Iranian targets, but there is disagreement about how much of a setback such raids could impose on the Iranian nuclear program, much of which is housed underground.
Two main options are under consideration, say people familiar with Air Force thinking. The first would be a quick series of strikes against several dozen nuclear-related facilities, lasting only a few days and followed by a U.S. statement that the bombing would resume if Iran retaliated.
The second option envisions a lengthier, more ambitious campaign of waves of strikes by bombers and cruise missiles aimed at hundreds of targets, hitting not just nuclear-related facilities but also the headquarters of intelligence agencies, the Revolutionary Guard and other key government offices.
Many experts worry that Iran, dominated by Shiite Muslims, would retaliate against U.S. and British forces in neighboring Iraq by mobilizing Iraqi Shiites. It might also attack U.S. and British installations in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain through the help of Shiites in those countries. In other scenarios, Iranian agents would stage terrorist strikes against civilians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
The recent statements are "a war of words," said Gary G. Sick, a professor of Middle East policy at Columbia University and longtime monitor of Iranian politics. "Neither side has anything to gain by an attack on the other, but there is a chance of an accident triggering something and that's what makes the situation so dangerous."
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency's report due Friday to the U.N. Security Council on the status of Iran's uranium enrichment program will shape debate in the council that could begin as early as next week. At issue would be possible international responses to Tehran. An IAEA official declined to comment on the contents of the pending report.
Iran dispatched an envoy to Vienna on Wednesday to meet with representatives of the IAEA, but neither side expressed optimism about a last-minute breakthrough. Iranian leaders have said they will not stop their uranium enrichment efforts, but rather plan to expand them.
"I think it's pretty clear what that report is going to say," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Wednesday, "which is that this is a regime that is in noncompliance with its obligations; this is a regime that is not abiding by the agreement it made with the Europeans to suspend all its enrichment and enrichment-related activities."
Under an agreement reached with Britain, France and Germany, Iran had suspended enrichment work while negotiations continued toward an agreement under which Iran would receive economic and political incentives in exchange for a permanent shutdown of controversial aspects of its nuclear program. It recently restarted enrichment.
Iran says its nuclear program is exclusively directed toward generating electricity. But U.S. officials accuse it of using the program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons. The Security Council has instructed Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program out of concern that it puts the country a step closer in the years-long process of building a nuclear bomb.
Iranian authorities, playing to a domestic political audience, have cast the U.N. demands as an effort by the West to trample on its sovereign right to develop a civilian nuclear program. "The Iranian nation and its officials are peace-seekers and the Islamic republic would not invade anybody," Khamenei said Wednesday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also created concern abroad by repeatedly calling for the end of the Jewish state. On Monday, Ahmadinejad said the "fake" state "cannot survive" and urged Israeli immigrants to return to their home countries. He has often called the Holocaust a myth.
"Of all the threats we face, Iran is the biggest," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday as Israel observed Holocaust Remembrance Day. "The world must not wait. It must do everything necessary on a diplomatic level in order to stop its nuclear activity."
He added, "Since Hitler we have not faced such a threat."
Ricks reported from Washington.