- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

Iran has begun preparing for a possible U.S. attack, announcing efforts to bolster and mobilize recruits in citizens’ militias and making plans to engage in the type of “asymmetrical” warfare used against American troops in neighboring Iraq.

“Iran would respond within 15 minutes to any attack by the United States or any other country,” an Iranian official close to the hard-line camp, which runs the country’s security and military apparatus, said on the condition of anonymity.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology.

Tehran insists its desire for atomic energy is entirely peaceful while Washington accuses the Muslim state of using nuclear energy as a fig leaf to make weapons.

President Bush said in an interview with Belgian television yesterday that he strongly prefers a diplomatic effort over military action to deal with Iran.

“You never want a president to say never,” Mr. Bush said, “but military action is … never the president’s first choice. Diplomacy is always the president’s first choice, at least my first choice.”

The president issued his strongest warning to Iran during last month’s State of the Union speech, telling Tehran that it “must give up” its nuclear program and support for terrorism, and pledging U.S. support for Iranians who openly oppose Iran’s unelected regime.

In recent days, Iranian newspapers have announced efforts to increase the number of the country’s 7-million-strong “Basiji” militia forces, which were deployed in human wave attacks against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Iranian military authorities have paraded long-range North Korean-designed Shahab missiles before television cameras. Iranian generals have conducted massive war games near the Iraqi border.

One Western military expert based in Tehran said Iran was sharpening its abilities to wage a guerrilla war.

“Over the last year they’ve developed their tactics of asymmetrical war, which would aim not at resisting a penetration of foreign forces, but to then use them on the ground to all kinds of harmful effect,” he said on the condition of anonymity.

It remains unclear how much of the recent military activity amounts to an actual mobilization and how much is a propaganda ploy.

Iranian officials and analysts have said they want to highlight the potential costs of an attack on Iran to raise the stakes for U.S. officials considering such a move and to frighten a war-weary American public.

“Right now it’s a psychological war,” said Nasser Hadian, a University of Tehran political science professor who recently returned from a three-year stint as a scholar at New York’s Columbia University.

“If America decides to attack, the only ones who could stop it are Iranians,” he said. “Pressure from other countries and inside America is important, but it won’t prevent an attack. The only thing that will prevent an attack is that if America knows it will pay a heavy price.”

Bush administration officials have said there are no immediate plans to attack Iran and the possibility is considered remote because deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere limit U.S. capacity for a major new offensive.

Iran, in addition to developing plans for guerrilla warfare against an invading army, also is attempting to give the impression that it is bolstering its conventional forces.

In December, Iran announced its largest war games “ever,” deploying 120,000 troops as well as tanks, helicopters and armored vehicles along its western border.

More recently, Iran’s press reported that the Iranian air force had received orders to engage any plane that violates Iranian airspace. These reports followed the disclosure that unmanned American drone planes have been monitoring Iranian nuclear sites.

“It is obvious that with Iran surrounded by the United States forces and America pressing the nuclear issue, Iran wants to make a show of force,” said a Western diplomat from Tehran, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Iran’s army includes 350,000 active-duty soldiers and 220,000 conscripts.

Its elite Revolutionary Guards number 120,000, many of them draftees. Its navy and air force total 70,000 men.

The armed forces have about 2,000 tanks, 300 combat aircraft, three submarines, hundreds of helicopters and at least a dozen Russian-made Scud missile launchers of the type Saddam Hussein used against Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Iran also has an undetermined number of Shahab missiles based on North Korean designs that have ranges of up to 1,500 miles.

But both outside military experts and Iranians concede that the country’s antiquated conventional hardware, worn down by years of U.S. and European sanctions, would be little match for the high-tech weaponry of the United States.

“Most of Iran’s military equipment is aging or second-rate and much of it is worn,” military expert Anthony Cordesman wrote in a December 2004 assessment of Iran’s military. He said Iran lost between 50 percent and 60 percent of its military equipment in the Iran-Iraq war, “and it has never had large-scale access to the modern weapons and military technology necessary to replace them.”

Iran’s highly classified Quds forces, which have a global network of operatives and answer directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could create a myriad of woes outside Iran’s borders.

In neighboring Iraq, where the United States says Tehran already has been interfering, many brush off the current low-level infiltration as minor compared with the damage Tehran is capable of unleashing.

“If Iran wanted, it could make Iraq a hell for the United States,” Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, said in a recent interview.

David R. Sands contributed to this article.

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