- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

As the Wednesday deadline set by the United Nations for Tehran to back down from its controversial nuclear program failed to be met, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was ready for talks but rejected U.S. preconditions that the Islamic Republic freeze its nuclear works.

In any case, some of Iran’s preconditions have already slammed the door shut on possible future talks. The Islamic Republic suggests a complete nuclear free zone in the Middle East. This of course, would mean Israel — although it has never officially admitted to possessing nuclear weapons — would be required by such an agreement to dispose of its nuclear arsenal, something hardly likely to happen anytime in the near future.

The foreseeable future in fact does not appear promising for U.S.-Iranian relations. With no direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington, tension in the area is only likely to increase. This week, a second U.S. carrier task force, the USS John C. Stennis, will reach the Gulf around the same time Iranian revolutionary guards are conducting one of the largest military exercises involving live ammunition.

Washington and the West insist on a Middle East devoid of nuclear weapons, excluding Israel, citing fears that if Iran manages to build a nuclear bomb, other countries in the region would likely want to follow suit. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey — all three Sunni-dominated countries — are likely candidates to join the nuclear club. Saudi Arabia certainly has the means to buy itself a nuclear weapon or two or three, or maybe entice Pakistani scientists to come to work in the desert kingdom in return for lucrative financial contracts and benefits.

Meanwhile, Ali Larijani, Iran’s top negotiator on nuclear affairs said his country is “looking for new ways and means to start negotiations,” as he headed into a new round of talks with Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency for an 11th-hour meeting in Vienna Tuesday.

At the end of the day the final decision regarding Iran’s nuclear program rests with the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But an early indication came from Mr. Ahmadinejad, who stressed that Iran would stand fast by its commitments to pursue its nuclear program. And so far the vast majority of Iran’s leaders have maintained the same approach toward their nuclear policy.

“If they say that we should close down our fuel production facilities to resume talks, we say fine, but those who enter talks with us should also close down their nuclear fuel production facilities,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said, in essence closing the door to future negotiations on the subject.

So what are the chances for a negotiated resolution to the crisis? President Bush continues to say everything remains on the table and has not ruled out military action. His new Defense Secretary Robert Gates insists the United States is not looking for a pretext for war with Iran.

A BBC report citing unnamed diplomatic sources, however, said U.S. contingency plans for any U.S. attack go beyond targeting atomic sites to include most of Iran’s military infrastructure. With the bulk of the U.S. military tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be unrealistic to imagine any military engagement with Iran would resemble the conflict in Iraq. One might imagine that, in a confrontation with the Islamic Republic, the U.S. would want to restrict the fighting to heavy use of the Air Force, guided missiles and seaborne bombardments.

The disadvantage of trying to win a war without committing ground troops by relying almost exclusively on superior air power was demonstrated last August when Lebanese Shi’ites of Hezbollah clashed with the Israeli army. Hezbollah dug in and waited for the infantry to arrive. That is when the real fighting began. In Iran’s case, the United States will certainly not commit its infantry. However, Iranian ground forces might well choose to cross the border into Iraq and confront U.S. forces there, on what is almost home turf.

A report prepared for the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research 12th annual conference by Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies is looking closely at Iran’s military capabilities.

Mr. Cordesman pointed to five major kinds of current and potential threats posed by Iran.

(1) As a conventional military power, Iran has limited capabilities. It could become more threatening if it was allowed to modernize its military components.

(2) Iran can pose an asymmetric threat using unconventional forces.

(3) Iran’s capabilities to use proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, strengthen its asymmetric power.

(4) Iran has the potential to develop nuclear-armed long-range missiles.

(5) Iran’s could promote religious and ideological feelings in the Islamic world that would exacerbate the schism between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

Mr. Cordesman’s report, specifically parts of it that relate to Iran’s capability of carrying out asymmetrical warfare, is something every U.S. military planner thinking of engaging Iran — from the commander in chief to the platoon’s 2nd lieutenant in the field — must study thoroughly.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.


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