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Missiles with a message

Some of what is going on in Iran is bluster. Missile experts scrutinising images of yesterday’s multiple rocket launches disputed Iranian claims that they had fired a missile with an increased range. Iran might also have dramatised the number of missiles it fired, by digitally enhancing the pictures it released.

But much of it is not bluster. If Israel carried out its threat to hit Iran’s nuclear sites on the presumption that they are close to building a bomb, Iran would have the opportunity to substantially inflame events in three theatres of war, from Afghanistan and Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean. The closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a 21-mile-wide passage through which 40% of the world’s oil cargo passes, might be the least of the world’s problems.

Israel’s air force and Iran’s rocket forces have both now flexed their muscles. Each believes its military exercises have a deterrent value but, month by month, the space for diplomacy is shrinking. The decision of the oil giant Total to pull out of a huge planned investment in Iran’s gas reserves (ostensibly because of the political risks involved but more probably because of the pressure applied by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government) could be interpreted as buying more time for diplomacy. If the economic screw is tightened on Iran, the Revolutionary Guards might calculate the real costs of their folly. But the inverse equally applies. What generally follows military exercises and widespread fears of confrontation in the Middle East is conflict itself.

Iran is not an innocent bystander in this game of brinkmanship. As Professor Peter Zimmerman, a former scientific adviser to the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, pointed out in a recent article, the Islamic Republic has real questions to answer about its supposedly civilian programme: why is it using high explosives to implode a hemispherical shell of heavy metal (the technique used for a lightweight nuclear bomb); why is it developing detonators needed in an atomic weapon; and why it is redesigning the warheads on its ballistic missiles? One way of lowering the tension would be to give the International Atomic Energy Agency convincing answers.

If the US believes, as the undersecretary of state William Burns said, that Iran is trying to foster the impression that its programme of nuclear enrichment is more advanced than it actually is, it should produce the evidence for this and contradict the Israeli view that Iran is about to cross a nuclear threshold. Now is the time for Washington to show that it has learned from the mistakes it made in the countdown to the invasion of Iraq. The consequences of attacking Iran could be even more long-lasting

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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