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International Journalists Discuss Iranian Missile Threat


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 warheads.”

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.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.