Iran’s testing of two separate rounds of long-range
ballistic missiles earlier this month has aggravated tensions between Tehran
and the United States, Israel, and even the Arab states in the region. Nonetheless, in a notable departure from
long-standing policy, the Bush administration authorized the most significant
American diplomatic contact with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and
sent a senior envoy – Under Secretary of State William Burns – to international
talks in Geneva on Saturday.
During her recent visit to former Soviet Georgia,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed the United States would “defend its
allies and protect its interests” against any threats in the Persian Gulf. The forceful warning came in response to
Iran’s test launch the day before of nine missiles, including those with a
range to strike Israel. But
subsequently, the French news agency AFP published a photograph from Iranian
state media that experts say had been digitally altered to show more and larger
missiles than had actually been launched.
The purpose of the exaggeration, some experts say, was to give the
impression Iran’s missile program has more capability than it really does.
Amir Oren of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz says
Iran’s missile program in and of itself does not currently pose an existential
threat. But, speaking with host Judith
Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Oren says that,
coupled with what Iran will probably have within a couple of years – namely,
nuclear warheads – it does pose the “gravest threat in Israel’s 60 years of
existence,” and therefore the state of Israel is “preparing itself for this
eventuality.” According to Mr. Oren,
Israel wants to show the world it has very powerful weapons and can use them to
retaliate against anyone trying to strike a blow against it. He thinks Iran’s most recent missile tests
represent a “ploy to stall for time until the Bush administration leaves
office” and there is a less determined occupant in the White House.
Iranian journalist Ali Reza Nourizadeh, who directs the
Center for Arab and Iranian studies in London, agrees that Tehran has probably
exaggerated the range and accuracy of its missiles. Nonetheless, they are still “very dangerous” because the hundreds
of kilos of explosives they carry could be “turned to chemical and biological
Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent for the Middle
East Broadcasting Center (MBC) says, although people in the Arab world view the
current situation primarily as one of “psychological warfare,” they do worry
about the threat from Iran in the future.
And the Gulf States, she says,,are
“very worried” about Iran as an emerging regional superpower. According to Ms. Bilbassy, they are also
concerned about the popularity of Iranians on the “Arab street.” And she adds, everyone is agreed that a
military strike against Iran could be a “disaster for the region,” including
the Gulf States.
On Saturday, Under Secretary of State Williams Burns
joined a scheduled meeting in Geneva between European Union foreign policy
chief Javier Solana and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Previously,
Washington had insisted that Tehran stop its uranium enrichment programs as a
precondition to face-to-face talks. At
the meeting, Iran was given a two-week deadline to decide whether to accept an
incentives package in exchange for suspending its nuclear program. According to VOA stringer in Geneva, Lisa
Schlein, Mr. Solana expressed some hope that Iran would return to the talks
with a positive response.
Meanwhile there are signs that Washington may be moving
closer to opening a diplomatic post in Tehran.
Former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin suggested in a New
York Times article last week that Secretary Rice is seeking President
Bush’s approval to establish a U.S. interest section in Tehran. Amir Oren says in principle Israel would
welcome any dialogue between Tehran and Washington. And Ali Reza Norizadeh suggests that having American diplomats in
Iran would “help the United States understand Iranian politics better” and
would promote closer contact with the Iranian people. Nadia Bilbassy calls it a “step in the right direction.” She says it does not mean “giving in to
Iranian demands,” but it would put Washington “in a better position to
influence decisions” by dealing with Tehran directly.
Some analysts are dubious that it is even possible to
prevent Iran from eventually developing nuclear weapons. If it did, Nadia Bilbassy says, the Sunni powers
in the region – especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt – would feel vulnerable. And with Israel “armed to the teeth,” as she
describes the situation, the only deterrent the Sunni Arab states would have
would be to develop or acquire their own nuclear weapons. That sort of
proliferation, she suggests, is precisely why Iran poses such a threat.
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