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IRAN, ISRAEL: Flexing muscles, turning up rhetoric in preparation for possible war

November 25, 2009 | 10:22 am

Israel-Iran war?

Things are not looking good for the possibility of a peaceful resolution between Israel and Iran over the latter's nuclear ambitions. Oil prices rose and hearts sank across the region this week as Iran began its biggest air defense drill ever and Israel readied a new missile defense system in preparation for a possible three-front war.

Since President Obama was swept into office promising a change toward strong diplomacy to resolve Middle East problems, his policies have faltered and his options narrowed.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank that favors a hard line on Iran, issued a report last week recommending that the Obama administration begin preparing for possible military strikes on Iran next year. If the U.S. does not strike Iranian nuclear and military facilities, the report said, Israel may decide to take riskier unilateral action.

The year is almost over, and so far Iran is unmoved. Neither the threat of stricter sanctions nor a U.S.-backed fuel-swap proposal has persuaded Iran to abandon its nuclear program, and the war of words with Israel is escalating.

Iran war games "If the enemy tries its luck and fires a missile into Iran, our ballistic missiles would zero in on Tel Aviv before the dust settles on the attack," Mojtaba Zolnour, a high-ranking government representative, told the Revolutionary Guard this week.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported today that Israel is investing in new high-tech weapons, including a cutting-edge antimissile system and two nuclear-equipped submarines. Israeli military experts have said that the army is expecting Iran's allies Hezbollah and Hamas to retaliate by launching synchronized rocket attacks in the event of an airstrike against Iran.

Israel's new antimissile system, known as Iron Dome, would detect incoming rockets and fire an interceptor that detonates into a cloud of pieces instead of trying to shoot down the rocket with a direct hit.

The Associated Press went on to report that in light of international condemnation of Israel over the Gaza Strip war, large resources are also going into developing more accurate weapons and noise-making explosions to scare away civilians before real bombs are dropped.

Some observers say Israel is bluffing, that it won't actually attack Iran for fear of messing up Washington's efforts in the Middle East.

But the prospect of armed conflict has alarmed some analysts, including Steven Simon at the Council on Foreign Relations, who this week published a short report examining the likelihood and consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran.

Although Simon urges U.S. policymakers to forestall an attack that could have serious military, diplomatic and political consequences for Americans, he also says Washington must take practical steps to mitigate the damage of such a conflict.

But, he warns, even such defensive preparations could be misinterpreted by Tehran: 

The United States must hedge against the failure of a war-avoidance policy, and begin preparing for an Israeli attack on Iran and Iranian retaliation. This will be a thorny process insofar as defensive measures the United States takes in the region, or urges its allies to take, could be read in Tehran as preparation for an attack and thus cast as justification for further destabilizing Iranian action.

-- Meris Lutz and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: Above, Israeli soldiers this year take part in an army drill simulating a chemical missile attack near Tel Aviv. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press.

Below, Iranian clergymen stand next to air defense missiles during military exercises near the city of Malayer, 180 miles southwest of Tehran, on Monday. Credit: Abolfazl Mahrokh / AFP/Getty Images.