- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2012

Tensions regarding Iran’s nuclear program escalated as Tehran’s armed forces staged exercises over the weekend and Iranian leaders vowed to retaliate against Western sanctions and any Israeli strike on the regime’s atomic sites.

What’s more, an Iranian official called for a pre-emptive missile attack on Israel before the end of the year to prevent an Israeli attack on the Islamic republic. According to Israel’s Channel 2 on Sunday, Ahmed Tavakoli, head of the Iranian Parliament’s research center, posted the remark on the institute’s website.

Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned that Iran would punish military strikes against his country’s nuclear program, which Western nations fear is developing an atomic weapon.

His militia staged exercises over the weekend near the southern city of Jiroft, according to state media.

The military drills were executed a day after Iran’s supreme leader vowed that “sanction will not have any impact on our determination to continue our nuclear course.”

In recent days, Israeli officials have issued some of their strongest warnings to date that the Jewish state will not allow Iran to do that.

“Whoever says ‘later’ may find that later is too late,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday, referring to fears that, once Iran completes a new underground nuclear facility near Qom, its program will be immune from attack.

Israeli officials have said they will not allow Iran to enter this “zone of immunity.”

U.S. officials have said they will not allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon and have not ruled out military action to stop them. But they believe the Islamic regime has not yet decided whether to create an atomic bomb.

Although small-scale, the exercises by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose senior leadership was implicated in a foiled terror plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington last year, could stoke U.S. concerns that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program might blow back against the United States.

U.S. officials believe “Iranian retaliation would fall largely on U.S. military and even civilian personnel” serving in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

Top U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers last week that Iran might use terrorist or criminal proxies to strike at American and allied targets, including in the U.S. homeland, in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said last week that he believes Israel could attack in the spring. The comments, which he has declined to dispute, were the latest in a series of public comments by U.S. officials rasing the specter of an Israeli strike.

The comments, Ms. Slavin said, are part of a concerted effort by U.S. officials “to smoke the Israelis out,” forcing Israeli officials into an unprecedented public debate about their options. “We are telling them every which way we can ‘Don’t do it,’ ” she said.

The Obama administration does not want Israel to strike because it would send the price of oil soaring and smash the international coalition against Iran that the United States has established, she added.

“The Israelis would be doing [Tehran] a huge favor if they attack,” because a divided and increasingly impoverished Iranian people undoubtedly would rally behind their leaders, Ms. Slavin said.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said there would be “no comment, no response,” to Mr. Panetta’s comments

But a veteran Iran scholar said bellicose rhetoric from Iranian leaders is to be expected as Iran celebrates the anniversary of its Islamic revolution.

“The rhetoric always becomes very heated at this time of year,” said Judith S. Yaphe, a research fellow at the National Defense University. “They will make very aggressive remarks. They will launch their latest, newest, flashiest technology.”

Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at 123@example.com.

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