ANALYSIS / Iran's threats are not based on any proven capability
Iran's declarations appear to be an attempt to create a balance of fear and deterrence with Israel.
Even though the senior Iranian official was speaking to a closed forum, it would not be at all surprising if his words were actually intended for an Israeli audience. Alongside the public diplomatic struggle - and Israel's secret military preparations - against the Iranian nuclear projects, there is also a war of threats and oratory going on between the two nations.
The announcements of Ayatollah Seyed G. Safavi look to be another stage in the Iranian attempt to create a balance of fear and deterrence with Israel.
The past two years, whether because of Iranian progress toward acquiring nuclear capability, or because of the absence of Ariel Sharon from the political helm, have seen a gradual escalation in Israeli pronouncements about Iran. The end of the primary season in Kadima may have reined in slightly the enthusiasm for public declarations, but even responsible Israeli statesmen such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking most recently on the matter last Sunday, take care to emphasize that the military option, as a last resort, is still on the table.
Last week MK Isaac Ben-Israel (Kadima), a former major general and someone very close to prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, said Israel will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, but that there was still time to prevent that eventuality. "It's not like we're going to bomb them in another three months," said Ben-Israel.
When Iranian experts dissect the Israeli declarations, the question is what do they emphasize, the threat ("We will not permit"), or the reservation ("Not now"). The reasonable assumption is that Safawi, similar to the Israeli and international media, does not really know what Israel is planning in the short term. But Teheran is interested in warning Jerusalem that as far as it is concerned, all options are open.
This was not the first such report: Two days ago the press in Teheran reported on a huge exercise of Iran's air force, including claims of a practice air attack on Israel. About 100 warplanes, it was claimed, flew 1,200 kilometers and demonstrated their capabilities - something that can be seen as a counter to the reports in June that the Israel Air Force had conducted a similar exercise, which included the simulated bombing of Iran.
The problem with Safawi's statements on a preemptive attack on Israel, and even more so with the reports of the Iranian air force exercise, is that they are not based on any proven capability.
A cautious estimate would be that the damage Iran could cause to Israel today is very limited. The Iranians would have to rely on their local representatives in the region, Hezbollah and Hamas, or to wait until they obtain nuclear weapons - two or three years down the road, even according to the most pessimistic estimates in the West.
Most Iranian warplanes are remnants from the days of the Shah, obsolete American planes. Prof. Anthony Cordesman, a senior U.S. strategic analyst, said in a lecture here last July that only a few of the 300 warplanes the Iranians have are capable of flying at all, and that they lack advanced aeronautical systems. It is highly unlikely that a significant number of such planes could penetrate Israeli defenses.
The second possibility for an Iranian attack is with long-range ground to ground missiles. But Cordesman, like other military experts, claims the Iranian missile program is less advanced than it may appear to be. He estimates the Iranians have a few dozen - and no more than a hundred - missiles with a range capable of reaching Israel. The launch capabilities of Iran's missiles have been tested only a few times and it is very hard to estimate their accuracy.
For now, without the ability to mount nuclear warheads on these missiles, an attack would consist of only conventional weapons. In other words, the damage they could cause would be similar to the destruction left by the Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.
It's hard to imagine what good such an attack would do for Iran in the near future. After all, this would be the best way to guarantee an Israeli counter-attack, as well as firm international intervention to halt the Iranian nuclear program, a program that constitutes such an important goal of the Iranian government.