Scott Peterson

From Washington, the rhetoric calls for diplomatic solutions to the nuclear standoff with Iran. But Tehran also hears a growing drumbeat for war that echoes the build-up to US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In preparation for any strike on its budding nuclear facilities, Iran is making clear that the price will be high — burnishing its military forces, boosting its missile programme, and warning of a painful response aga-inst US and Israeli targets in the region.

President Bush, who included Iran in his “axis of evil,” has called speculation about a strike “ridiculous,” but says all options are open. Earlier this month, the US added modest incentives of WTO membership and spare aircraft parts to bolster Britain, France, and Germany as they negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme. But the US last week refused to consider a security guarantee, as proposed by the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog agency.

Experts say Iran has many assets to draw upon in case of attack: Iran has been upgrading its Shahab-3 missile, which can reach Israel and US forces in the region. Iran’s armed forces have conducted high-profile military exercises since last fall; it is reported to have set up sophisticated air defences around its nuclear facilities; Ukraine’s new pro-West lawmakers are investigating “smuggled” shipments of a dozen Soviet-era Kh-55 cruise missiles designed to carry a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead 1,860 miles, virtually undetectable by radar to Iran in 2001; western diplomats are raising concerns that Iran is “quietly building a stockpile” of sophisticated military equipment, such as 2,000 armour-piercing sniper rifles and night-vision goggles, acquired through legal purchases as well as under a UN anti-drug program, the Associated Press reported last Friday. Beyond this, civilian hard-liners have been recruiting suicide bombers to kill US troops in Iraq, or Israelis. Though derided by some officials as not serious, by last June 15,000 had signed up, according to Knight-Ridder. That possibility, and the examples of US-engineered regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, are causing Iran to hedge its bets. Talking up that defence is almost daily news in Iran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Iranians are “accustomed to the harsh and threatening language of the enemy,” and told Iranian nuclear officials last week to ignore US threats and continue their work. Analysts say any military action by the US could boost unpopular conservatives. Many experts agree that a military attack aimed at nuclear sites could propel Iran’s leadership to kick out UN inspectors and withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Diplomats in Tehran say the US and Europe last month hammered out a two-page agreement on how to “march together” in dealing with Iran. But such moves come amid a host of reports from the US and Israel of US special forces operating clandestinely in Iran already, searching for evidence of WMDs. Still, Iran has the largest military in the region, with 540,000 active troops and 350,000 more in reserves. Ironically, any strike could bury Iran’s already weakened moderates. “This action will really work against democracy and reformers in Iran, and I believe the Americans know that,” says Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister and adviser to Khatami. —The Christian Science Monitor