Is Iran a real threat, or a paper tiger?

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Every which way you turn in Washington these days there is talk of war, all while the President George W. Bush is gearing up for a major Middle East peace conference this fall. Maybe the president is heeding the counsel of Vegetius of ancient Rome who said: “Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum,” or “whoever wishes for peace, let him prepare for war.”

Indeed, those who wish for war are plentiful along the banks of the Potomac. Starting with the Iranian opposition, who have been at the forefront of the leakage of information pertaining to the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, an opposition figure with close links to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or the People’s Mujahedeen, the first person to reveal the existence of Iran’s secret processing sites, likes to remind the administration that Iran poses “a very, very serious threat to the free world,” and a country which wants “to extend its influence beyond its borders.”

Yet, much closer to the American president, also counseling for war is Vice President Dick Cheney. The hawkish VP has long preferred the strong arm approach in dealing with Iran over diplomacy. Murmurs around Washington of a possible US and/or Israeli military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear power sites has recently gotten louder, even if a well-informed source told this reporter that according to senior US intelligence officials, President Bush has definitely decided not to strike any of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons production facilities this year. That doesn’t mean that military intervention against Iran could not happen next year.

Cheney, it has been reported, wants to see punitive action against Iran before Bush’s term in the White House ends in January 2009. Cheney’s proposal, the sources say has not gotten approval, so far.

Of course a relevant question is whether Iran poses a real threat or is it just a paper tiger? The neoconservatives, their Iranian allies and the pro-Israel lobby, all support the idea of a military strike. However, a well-informed Saudi source told this reporter that the reality paints a very different picture.

“The situation has radically changed in the Gulf, and especially between the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) and Iran. Iran is at best a second-grade power and slowly slipping into a third-grade power,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

The source claims that Iran is on the defensive. Now it is Iran who is worried, said the Saudi source. Economically, Saudi Arabia is light years ahead of Iran. Saudi Arabia leads in oil production and exports. In a report carried by Arab News, Abdullah Jumah, the president and chief executive of Saudi Aramco, said the kingdom’s oil output reached 10.7 million barrels per day by the end of 2006. Aramco also added an additional 3.6 billion barrels of oil to its reserves in 2006 and boosted its natural-gas holding by 10.4 trillion standard cubic feet, more than double its initial target.

Iran, according to Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, increased its crude-oil production by 55,000 bpd in the last year, bringing total output to 4.08 million bpd.

Additionally, unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran lacks the capability of refining its own crude, relying instead on foreign refineries, principally India. Which means a blockade of shipping lanes through the Straits of Hormuz would choke Iran, depriving it of its own oil.

Leading US military strategist Anthony Cordesman thinks Iran’s current military capabilities are “outdated” and “present little current threat to its neighbors.”

“Iran has exaggerated its military capabilities,” Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, said during a recent speech to a group of military experts in Abu Dhabi.

“Iran is more focused on national defense than using military power to boost its influence in the region,” he said. Iran represents “a force that has to be taken seriously in the defense of its country, but it has very little capacity to project outside the country,” Cordesman said, adding that Iran’s nuclear program could someday pose a danger but that “any serious threat lies a decade or so away.”

Iran’s ballistic missiles use 1960s technology, making them only accurate enough to “probably” strike a large city, Cordesman said. Their small warheads might only damage a few buildings. The most sophisticated weapons system in Iran’s arsenal are defensive: the Russian-made TOR-M1 air defense systems just purchased from Russia.

Cordesman also contended that tensions in the Gulf were being worsened by US and Israeli leaders overstating the Iranian threat. “The real danger Iran poses would be in an asymmetric capacity perhaps, but not in conventional warfare,” he said.

But it is precisely this asymmetric capacity that has many US and European Union officials worried. Iran has the ability to disrupt — albeit temporarily — the oil flow in the Gulf. And it has the ability to create trouble in Lebanon through Hizbullah. One area of particular concern to the Europeans, primarily the French and Italians, is the vulnerability of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, where Iran could demonstrate its power precisely through asymmetric warfare.