Is Iran Next?

Iranians are cautiously preparing for war with the United States. The signs are all there.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi returned on Monday from a trip to Turkey where he discussed preserving Iraq's territorial integrity, but undoubtedly also discussed a possible American incursion in Iran, according to his spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.

Responding to a question on the recent threats raised by U.S. officials against Iran, Asefi said: "If you mean political, economic and cultural threats, I have to say that the country has faced such threats since the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. We are not concerned about any U.S. military threat."

Read: "We are concerned about a U.S. military threat."

This was reinforced on the same day by Iran's army chief, Major General Mohammad Salimi, who called on the country's armed forces to prepare for any confrontation with "probable foreign threats."

Iranians also recently pressed U.K. Defense Minister Geoff Hoon with questions about possible military action against Iran. Hoon claimed that no such action was proposed by the United Kingdom. The assurances rang hollow, however, as it became clear that Hoon, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Minister Jack Straw were unwilling to speak for the United States. Straw said uneasily that although there was "no case whatsoever for taking any action," it would "worry me if it were true" that Iran and Syria were being lined up by the United States.

Iranians may be overly cautious. There is reported dissention in the White House about moving into Iran. The office of Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, has prepared invasion plans for both Syria and Iran. However, they have not yet been presented to the National Security Council or the president. Moreover, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice is reported to be opposed to any further military action in the Middle East.

However, the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush officials have called for action against Iran does not make the Iranians feel safer. Moreover, it was Condoleeza Rice who accused Iran of supporting "terrorists" two months after the tragedy of September 11. Finally, a Los Angeles Times poll in the first week of April found 50 percent of Americans favoring "military action" against Iran if it "continues to develop nuclear weapons." Never mind that Iran has no nuclear weapons at present and has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Iran's nervousness may simply be a habit. Iranians have been skittish about the possibility of American intervention for 50 years. Ever since 1953, when the CIA overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq to install the U.S.-backed Shah, they have assumed that the United States wanted to take over their nation in one way or another. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 expelled the United States. But just 25 years later, Iranians find themselves caught in an uncomfortable American pincer movement, between U.S. troops to the west in Iraq and in Afghanistan to the east.

The first target in a military conflict between the United States and Iran would likely be Iran's nuclear generating plant in the southern port city of Bushehr. Journalist Charles Digges, writing for the Norwegian environmental foundation Bellona, quotes American and Russian officials who suggest that a strike on Bushehr might be disguised as an "accident." Such an action could sour relations between Washington and Moscow, since the Russians helped the Iranians build the plant.

Washington has claimed that Iran is using the plant to generate fuel for nuclear weapons, not for power generation.

It is certain that any strike against Iran would be enormously more complex than the present invasion of Iraq, and would likely be more than America could handle in a ground war. Iran is almost four times the size of Iraq, with a complex terrain involving some of the most formidable mountains and deserts in the world. The population is three times as large as Iraq's, and Tehran, the capital, has more than 12 million people. The young Iranian population provides a potential fighting force of 10 million males.

Given these statistics, the United States would need to spend hundreds of billions to pursue such a conflict, with gargantuan losses of American life and no guarantee of any success.

Beeman is author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran," and two forthcoming books: "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."

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