NEW YORK – It is unimaginable not to get the message of Iran on Wednesday test-firing nine long-and-medium range missiles – including the Shahab-3, with a range of 2,000 kilometers – in the ultra-sensitive Hormuz Strait.
Make no mistake, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is more than ready, with Allah’s blessing, to go ballistic. No wonder the test was officially called “The Great Prophet 3”.
There’s a maze of invisible, much more subtle messages, lost in the current tsunami of spin. For starters: even if Iran had the means to deliver the nuclear warheads it does not possess, these tests do not necessarily mean it has mastered the capability to do so.
Experts disagree on the merits of the Shahab-3 – a copy of the North Korean Nodong; for some it’s not that less erratic than a glorified Scud. But most experts agree Iran is nowhere close to being capable of weaponizing any kind of nuclear device it may still take years to make.
As a political statement, the missile test was impeccable – delivered the exact same day the leaders at the Group of Eight meeting in Japan were calling for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, to which it has a right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory.
Then there are the internal, rhetorical cross currents – a very delicate ballet. The head of the Iranian air force, General Hossein Salami, said Iran is very much aware of “enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language”. According to the Iranian press, Salami also said, “Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch.”
Predictably, the US government dubbed the test “a threat” – as if Washington and Israel had been sending love letters to Tehran lately.
Brigadier General Mohammad-Najjar was much more conciliatory. He made it clear “our missile capacity is just for defensive purposes, to safeguard peace in Iran and the Persian Gulf region … Our missiles will not be used to threaten any country, they are only intended for those who dare attack Iran”.
And all this happened only one day after Ali Shirazi, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s liaison with the IRGC navy, had said, “If Washington and Tel Aviv are foolish enough to even consider attacking Iran, our initial response would be to target Israel and set US interests in the Persian Gulf ablaze.” The Pentagon took no time to register this particular message. The next day, the USS Abraham Lincoln was moved to the Arabian Sea.
Threats, threats and more threats
The Iranian missile test does counteract the by now earth-shattering Israeli barrage of spin, along the lines that the Jewish state will have “no choice” but to strike Iran “to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons” – the same “weapons” the International Atomic Energy Agency and even the US’s National Intelligence Estimate have stated do not exist.
Inevitably, the missiles also struck both US presidential campaigns. Democrat Senator Barack Obama stayed more or less on his message of “coercive diplomacy”, calling for more stringent sanctions against Iran but without ruling out diplomacy. For Obama, “Iran is a great” – you guessed it – “threat”. “We have to make sure we are working with our allies to apply tightened pressure on Iran.”
Republican Senator John McCain – who had just half-joked the day before rising exports of US cigarettes is “a good way to kill Iranians” – also stayed more or less on his “bomb, bomb bomb Iran” message, saying through a statement, “Iran’s most recent missile tests demonstrate again the dangers it poses to its neighbors and to the wider region, especially Israel.”
But McCain went further, plugging once again the establishment of missile defense shields in the Czech Republic and Poland. As if Tehran was on the verge of hitting Warsaw and Prague. The Shahab-3, for the moment equipped with a conventional, one-ton warhead, can in theory reach Israel, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not Europe. Moscow, anyway, is definitely not amused. Take this official Russian Foreign Ministry reaction, “If the real deployment of an American strategic missile defense shield begins close to our borders, then we will be forced to react not with diplomatic methods, but with military-technical methods.”
President George W “all options are on the table” Bush’s position regarding Iran is well known. But even before Obama and McCain’s reactions, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was already spinning the Bush/McCain line, saying the “war games” were “evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one”.
For his part, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad – dubbed by US neo-conservatives as “the new Hitler” – seems to have removed some options from his own Persian table. Also before the missile test, at a press conference in Malaysia, he said, “I assure you that there won’t be any war in the future.”
But what is happening in Tehran?
General Mohammad Ali Jafari has been the supreme IRGC commander since September 2007. Over a week ago, after a groundbreaking interview to the conservative newspaper Jam e-Jam, he announced a very deep structural IRGC decentralizing shake-up, under the orders of Khamenei himself.
Most key regional commanders were replaced. Jafari had already organized the fusion between the Pasdaran – the military elite – and the Bassij militias.
What this means in practice is that Iran now has 30 armies – one in every province, all of them interconnecting Pasdaran and Bassij, all of them with members of both bodies training together. Esfandiari Safari, writing in the Iranian newspaper Rooz, interprets Jafari’s new set up as “the response from the IRGC’s high command to the imminent attack they are waiting for”.
Up to now, Ahmadinejad and a smatter of top Iranian officials had always played down an US or Israeli attack. It appears that now the IRGC is bracing for an attack while the Ahmadinejad faction keeps playing it down.
The IRGC – branded a “terrorist organization” by the US – had to come up with some kind of message. The US Congress and Senate, amid apathy in US corporate media and public opinion, are about to virtually declare war on Iran, voting for two misleading resolutions – which call for a naval blockade of Iran’s ports – that were basically written by the hardline American Israel Public Affairs Committee Israeli lobby and spoon-fed to politicians in Capitol Hill.
Muhammad Sahimi, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California, writing in the Huffington Post website (“Deconstructing the Anti-Iran Resolutions”, has conclusively shown how the two bipartisan resolutions are “based on factual errors, exaggerations, half-truths, and even outright lies”How To Convince Your Congressperson Not To Attack Iran Huffington Post, July 10, 2008..
Last week, former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul stunned no one in Washington when he said, “I hear members of Congress saying if we could only nuke them” as applied to Iran. According to Sahimi, even though the bipartisan resolutions “are not granting the Bush administration any authorization to stage military attacks on Iran, their language, however, is warlike”.
Warlike is certainly what the Israeli air force promoted last month, a spectacular “exercise” over the East Mediterranean involving the refueling of up to 100 fighter planes in midair for a mission of well over a thousand kilometers – the distance from Israel to the Natanz nuclear plant in Iran. The most worrying detail of the operation was that the Greeks lent their air space to the Israelis. Greece happens to be the European Union country and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member with the best diplomatic relations with Iran.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana will be back in Tehran soon to discuss the same old deal Western Europe was offering in 2005 – economic, diplomatic and energy-related “carrots” in return for Iran suspending uranium-enrichment.
Once again the Iranian response to the offer has been a delicate ballet of unsurpassed ambiguity. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili had been talking under the radar with Solana for weeks, saying he would be welcome for no-precondition talks in Tehran. Then the Ahmadinejad faction – to which Jalili is beholden – sort of pulled the plug. But the fact remains that former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, now senior foreign policy and security adviser to Khamenei, is a key player in the talks, and he points to the ayatollah’s position of finding some sort of accommodation.
One thing is certain: just reboiled “carrots” won’t seduce Iran. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has made it more than obvious more than once. Iran will basically continue to conduct its nuclear program and to enrich nuclear fuel.
The IRGC, for its part, is taking no chances: it is now bracing for an “imminent” attack, even though Iran seems to hold too many precious cards to be victim of an attack – as much as neo-con chicken hawks may be praying for it.
 How To Convince Your Congressperson Not To Attack Iran Huffington Post, July 10, 2008.