Friday, March 02, 2012

iran will meet threat with threat

NYTimes | American officials who have assessed the likely Iranian responses to any attack by Israel on its nuclear program believe that Iran would retaliate by launching missiles on Israel and terrorist-style attacks on United States civilian and military personnel overseas.

While a missile retaliation against Israel would be virtually certain, according to these assessments, Iran would also be likely to try to calibrate its response against American targets so as not to give the United States a rationale for taking military action that could permanently cripple Tehran’s nuclear program. “The Iranians have been pretty good masters of escalation control,” said Gen. James E. Cartwright, now retired, who as the top officer at Strategic Command and as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff participated in war games involving both deterrence and retaliation on potential adversaries like Iran.

The Iranian targets, General Cartwright and other American analysts believe, would include petroleum infrastructure in the Persian Gulf, and American troops in Afghanistan, where Iran has been accused of shipping explosives to local insurgent forces.

Both American and Israeli officials who discussed current thinking on the potential ramifications of an Israeli attack believe that the last thing Iran would want is a full-scale war on its territory. Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior leadership in Tehran, and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict. Yet such assessments are not just intellectual exercises. Any conclusions on how the Iranians will react to an attack will help determine whether the Israelis launch a strike — and what the American position will be if they do.

While evidence suggests that Iran continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapons program, American intelligence officials believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb. But the possibility that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike has become a focus of American policy makers and is expected to be a primary topic when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel meets with President Obama at the White House on Monday.

In November, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said any Iranian retaliation for an Israeli attack would be “bearable,” and his government’s estimate that Iran is engaging in a bluff has been a key element in the heightened expectations that Israel is considering a strike. But Iran’s highly compartmentalized security services, analysts caution, may operate in semi-rogue fashion, following goals that seem irrational to planners in Washington. American experts, for example, are still puzzled by a suspected Iranian plot last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

“Once military strikes and counterstrikes begin, you are on the tiger’s back,” said Ray Takeyh, a former Obama administration national security official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And when on the tiger’s back, you cannot always pick the place to dismount.”


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