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23/08/04  Iran Raises the Stakes By Mouna Naim

Le Monde

Monday 23 August 2004

  Iranian Defense Minister Ali Chamkhani remarks: “We will not sit with out arms folded waiting for others to act against us (…) Some Iranian military officials feel that preventive operations are neither an American invention nor a prerogative of the United States.” The warning is clear and doubly informative.

  It expresses both the exacerbation of the crisis raging between the United States and the Islamic Republic, as well as the first public confession by the Iranian Army's second official of differences in opinion within the troop command with regard to the best way to protect the national territory.

  As much if not more so than in other places, the Islamic Republic's Army is the “great mute” whose loyalty to the regime has never failed up to now. It is placed under the authority of the country's Supreme Guide, today the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Of all Iranian political figures, he's the one who, even if it means contradicting other official leaders – including President of the Republic, Mohammad Khatami – has never given the least sign of “weakness” towards the United States and Israel, considered to be two sides of the same coin.

  Ali Chamkhani could therefore not have made such a pronouncement without a green light from the Guide. Nonetheless, to already deduct from that that the Ayatollah Khamenei is in favor of a “preventive” strike would be going a bit too far.

  Israel, in any case, has been warned since August 11. That day Iran announced it had made a successful test of the last version of its medium range missile, Chahab-3, capable, according to the minister's explanations, of reaching Israeli territory. Four days later, the commander of the Pasdarans Corps, the army's auxiliary militia, exulted: “All of Israeli territory, including its military installations and nuclear stocks, are now within reach of Iranian missiles and advanced technology.”

  Then it fell to Hassan Rouhani, Iran's principal negotiator in nuclear matters and generally considered pragmatic, to supply the “diplomatic” explanation of this warlike raising of the stakes.” Any country that feels threatened by another must prepare itself,” he declared.

  Up until only a short while ago, the Islamic Republic's leaders, alternating between intransigence and a desire to cooperate, were busy protesting their good faith whenever confronted with the accusations and suspicions Westerners, most particularly the United States, brought against them. Teheran denies contributing to the instability in Iraq, to supporting terrorism in any way, to embarking on a military nuclear program. The tone has just changed. Hassan Rouhani asserts that his country's policy has always been and remains purely “defensive.” The Iranian leaders have nonetheless recently switched to the offensive: the verbal offensive.

  This escalation stems from a host of reasons whose connections accentuate the pressure on the Iranian power structure. There are the sometimes veiled, sometimes direct criticisms accusing Iran of fomenting instability in neighboring Iraq. There is also the Scottish cold shower regimen to which the United States subjects Teheran over nuclear power. Claiming to be convinced that the Iranian nuclear program is a military one, Washington alternates the carrot and the stick to bring the Iranian leaders to renunciation.

   The American Election

  In this regard, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei's July visit to Israel did not help at all. It was in fact a protocol visit designed to dissipate the impression that the Jewish state – the nuclear program of which is an open secret, but the existence of which it refuses to confirm, as it refuses to agree to any international treaty or protocol imposed on nuclear powers – enjoys special privileges. Obviously, as the editorialist of the reforming daily newspaper Mardom Salari commented, expressing an opinion widely held in Iran, “Mr. ElBaradei's magic wand is only effective when applied to Iran and remains totally ineffective with regard to Israel.”

  Moreover, Iran has a double deadline in its sights: the first is the September 13 meeting of the IAEA governors who must reach a decision on a report about Iran's nuclear activity.

  Contrary to what its leaders are clamoring, the Islamic Republic will not come off clean, given its recent derelictions – resumption of the construction of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, saber rattling about its right to continue nuclear activities, and the discovery of traces of enriched uranium, which, according to certain diplomats, could have come from through Pakistani channels.

  The second deadline is the American presidential election in November. Iran fears that Israel will take advantage of the American administration's fixation on the election to deal a blow, with or without Washington's consent, to one or the other of Iran's nuclear installations, which it swears are for civilian use. On this score, Teheran is haunted by the precedent of Israel's 1981 aerial bombardment of Iraq's Osirak reactor. A pipe dream or reality?

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Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

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