Iranian Response / Saber Rattling Could Backfire

The belief that Israel will attack Iran before the year is out, and the major military drill over the Mediterranean last month, may indicate Israel's determination - even if it has to act alone - to defend against the strategic threat Iran has laid at its doorstep.

However this message, along with the threats Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has made against Iran, must also be analyzed in light of Iran's abilities to respond to such an attack with a preemptive strike against Israel.

For years Israel has warned against Iran's increased ballistic capabilities. Shihab 3 and Shihab 4 missiles were perceived until recently as Iran's clearest strategic menace. A few years ago, General Ahmed Wahid, head of Iran's aircraft industries, said Iran did not view the United States as the target of his country's missiles, but rather Israel.

In contrast with the more distant nuclear threat, Iran has proven ballistic capabilities to hit strategic and civilian targets in Israel, causing huge casualties and enormous damage. Since the nuclear issue burst into military-diplomatic discourse, it is as if the ballistic issue has been forgotten. Meanwhile, the single-minded perception that only the West and Israel can attack Iran and that Iran cannot launch a preemptive strike or a powerful response has settled in, at least in public discussions.

If the threat to attack Iran is meant to motivate the Iranian people to pressure their leadership, this goal is still far from attained. Ahmadinejad has a strong opposition in parliament and in some sectors of the public, but at the same time widespread consensus exists that the development of nuclear technology is a worthwhile national task. Thus while there is domestic criticism of failing economic policies, and next year's presidential election campaign has already begun, none of the potential candidates speak of halting nuclear development.

It is believed in Iran that continued threats, not to mention a direct attack, might only strengthen Ahmadinejad as the man who is standing strong against the West and Israel, and increase the feeling that nuclear armament is necessary.

THe commander of the Revolutionary Guards Mohammed Ali Jafari warned this week that Iran would respond to an attack by closing the strait of Hormuz, preventing the passage of oil from the Gulf states, which would spike world oil prices.

Israel, which had to extricate itself from accusations that it dragged the U.S. into war in Iraq, will find it difficult to withstand pressure that it, and not Iran, is responsible for another rise in oil prices, perhaps the most dramatic to date, and the subsequent damage to global economy. The hike in oil prices following Mofaz's statements may be proof of this scenario.

Iran's nuclear threat has created an interesting anti-Iranian coalition that includes Arab countries along with the U.S. and Israel. For the first time, Arab statesmen are saying that the Iranian nuclear threat against Arab countries is more concrete than the Israeli threat on them. However, this coalition will have difficulty tolerating an Israeli attack on Iran, especially if that attack brings about an Iranian attack on nearby Arab countries.