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Iran's weapons pose little threat but are a political boon, experts say

TEHRAN, Iran—Iran probably couldn't mount much of a defense against a U.S. air attack on its nuclear sites, but such action would likely rally moderate Iranians around their ultra-conservative leaders and strengthen Iranian resolve to resist efforts to make it give up its nuclear program, Iranian and Western analysts here believe.

Iran trumpeted the debut of new missiles during war games it conducted last week in the Persian Gulf as evidence that it's updated its military and that American attackers would face difficult odds if they were to try to bomb research centers.

U.S. President George W. Bush and European leaders worried by Iran's pursuit of the ability to enrich uranium—a process that can produce both fuel for power plants and material for building bombs—have said they want to resolve the conflict diplomatically. However, an article in this week's New Yorker quotes unnamed sources as saying that the Pentagon this winter presented Bush with the option of using bunker-buster nuclear bombs against Iran's underground nuclear sites.

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, branded the idea "completely nuts," in an appearance Sunday on BBC1's Sunday AM Programme. He called military action against Iran "inconceivable," adding that "it isn't on the agenda" of the Bush administration.

Military utility aside, the value of Iran's new weapons lies largely in what they might do for Iranian national morale. Military analysts here, as well as in Washington and Moscow, say Tehran's new hardware is unreliable and ineffective. In addition, the Iranian air force is threadbare and its anti-air defenses are limited and antique. Its navy, even with a new torpedo unveiled last week that supposedly travels at speeds in excess of 200 mph underwater, would be no match for the 27 U.S. warships based in and around the Persian Gulf.

The one bright spot, from the Iranian perspective, is the nation's army, whose sheer size would make an Iraq-style invasion, in the opinion of analysts, all but impossible. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is believed to have millions of troops at his disposal from the military, the elite Revolutionary Guard corps and the vast Basij paramilitary.

Still, Iranian officials are working hard to persuade Western leaders—and their own people—that Iran could strike back.

"This regime is trying to send a message that it's strong enough to retaliate against any possible military attack against Iran, that it's not like its neighbor Iraq, which the Americans could easily invade," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst in Tehran.

Iranian newspapers were filled with news of the new weapons systems last week, and the airwaves with bellicose talk. The government named the military exercise the Holy Prophet War Game, and the state news service published messages from Syrian and Palestinian officials praising the operation. Even though one state paper's headline read, "War Games in Persian Gulf Convey Message of Peace," that was not the point.

"We regard the presence of America in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf as a threat, and we recommend they do not move toward threatening Iran," Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard, told state television.

Hamid-Reza Taraghi, whose hard-line Islamic Coalition Society advises the Iranian president, said in an interview with Knight Ridder that the war games showed the modern Persian military's new confidence.

"We are totally different from the Iran of 27 years ago. Now we are at the same level as the mightiest power in the world—America—and in firing missiles, we're stronger," Taraghi said. "Those who threaten us and our people should know that these maneuvers are an example of our defense capabilities and if they strike us, they will receive a devastating strike in return."

Iran is notoriously secretive about its defense capabilities, and the past week's display of homegrown weapons came as a surprise to international observers accustomed to seeing only military parades or training footage.

Iran said it tested the land-to-sea Kowsar missile, designed to sink ships, an Iranian-made torpedo, a sonar-evading underwater missile and a radar-evading rocket. The systems were greeted skeptically by outside analysts.

"I would call it a show of words," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who on Friday published a new assessment of Iran's military capabilities. He discounted Iranian claims about the effectiveness of the weapons, especially a sonar-avoiding underwater missile.

"The only way you can totally avoid sonar is to move underwater faster than sound," he said. "I wouldn't hold my breath."

In Moscow, there was similar skepticism. "We know very few things about the Iranian military," said independent military analyst Alexander Golts. "All we know about these exercises and tests is what the Iranians said themselves."

But Golts noted that building sophisticated weapons systems is difficult for even the most advanced militaries. "We can doubt greatly that Iran has something like smart weapons or a serious air defense or missile defense system," Golts said.

Cordesman said Iran has few systems to ward off a sustained U.S. air assault from B-2 bombers or cruise missiles.

By his estimate, the air defense system is made up of a collection of U.S-made medium range Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, designed in the 1960s, Soviet-made SA 2 missiles and their Chinese variants, and possibly some SA-6 and long-range SA-5 missiles. It also has an array of shoulder-fired missiles about 2,000 anti-aircraft guns.

He called the system "outdated" and "poorly integrated."

"All ... are based on technology that is now more than 35 years old, and all are vulnerable to U.S. use of active and passive countermeasures," he said.

Still, Iran's ground force would remain a major deterrent to any Iraq-style invasion, and some argue that an airstrike might backfire by rallying even the most dissident Iranians around a national tragedy.

"For propaganda purposes, they're going to want to take all the local journalists round to the hospital or school that's been hit," said one Tehran-based Western diplomat.

Others note that much of Iran's current leadership comes with military training absent in previous Iranian governments, perhaps assuring a willingness to retaliate. President Ahmadinejad, who served in the Revolutionary Guard, is the first non-cleric to hold the presidency since the early days of the revolution.

"The Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij voted for Ahmadinejad as a bloc," said Ibrahim Yazdi, Iran's first foreign minister after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and a critic of Ahmadinejad's administration. "If you look at the backgrounds of all the new ministers, they are from ... the Revolutionary Guard."

On the traffic-clogged streets of Tehran, Iranians are still more preoccupied with domestic problems, such as unemployment and air pollution, than with a possible U.S. attack. But even those who disdain their government stress that reform must come from within, not by U.S. intervention.

"The West thinks we're in danger, that we're restricted, that we're miserable," said Gholamreza Jafari, a 35-year-old father of two who was spending time with his young son Saturday at a popular park in Tehran. "It makes me so mad when they portray us as limited. Nuclear rights are our absolute rights, and it doesn't make a difference if we ask for them under this government or another one."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown in Washington and Brian Bonner of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Moscow contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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