UPDATE: (4:15 PM EST) Hezbollah says Attack on Iran Would Set Middle East Ablaze
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program would set the Middle East ablaze, possibly drag in the United States and unleash a conflict beyond the Jewish state's control, the deputy head of Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement said today. Reuters reports:
"America knows that if there is a war on Iran, this means that the whole region will be set alight, with no limit to the fires," Hezbollah deputy Sheikh Naim Qassem told Reuters.
Qassem also said the movement's fighters, estimated to number several thousand, were better trained and equipped to retaliate against Israel than in 2006, when the Jewish state fought a month-long war in southern Lebanon.
"Gone are the days when Israel decides to strike, and the people are silent," he said.
"Israel could start a war ... but it does not know the scale of the consequences and it is incapable of controlling them."
The Hezbollah deputy said he believed Israel would try to drag a reluctant United States into confrontation with Tehran because it could not inflict sufficient losses on Iran alone. [...]
"Israel does not have the capability nor the courage to wage war by itself on Iran, while America has reservations because of the dangers of this war and because of the upcoming (presidential) election," Qassem said.
US officials who have assessed the likely Iranian responses to an attack by Israel believe an Iranian retaliation would include launching missiles on Israel and asymmetric attacks on United States civilian and military personnel overseas, according to a report in today's New York Times. Calculations expressed by Israeli officials show their willingness to accept an Iranian retaliation, even as they acknowledge it would be impossible to predict the scale or regional implications of a preemptive assault.
According to the NYT:
While a missile retaliation against Israel would be virtually certain, according to these assessments, Iran would also be likely to try to calibrate its response against American targets so as not to give the United States a rationale for taking military action that could permanently cripple Tehran’s nuclear program. “The Iranians have been pretty good masters of escalation control,” said Gen. James E. Cartwright, now retired, who as the top officer at Strategic Command and as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff participated in war games involving both deterrence and retaliation on potential adversaries like Iran.
The Iranian targets, General Cartwright and other American analysts believe, would include petroleum infrastructure in the Persian Gulf, and American troops in Afghanistan, where Iran has been accused of shipping explosives to local insurgent forces.[...]
In November, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said any Iranian retaliation for an Israeli attack would be “bearable,” and his government’s estimate that Iran is engaging in a bluff has been a key element in the heightened expectations that Israel is considering a strike. [...]
Their analysis, however, also includes the broad caveat that it is impossible to know the internal thinking of the senior leadership in Tehran, and is informed by the awareness that even the most detailed war games cannot predict how nations and their leaders will react in the heat of conflict. Yet such assessments are not just intellectual exercises. Any conclusions on how the Iranians will react to an attack will help determine whether the Israelis launch a strike — and what the American position will be if they do.
Israel downplays Iranian response; Missiles raining on Tel Aviv acceptable
A former Israeli official said the best way to think about retaliation against Israel was through a formula he called “1991 plus 2006 plus Buenos Aires times 3 or 5.” The reference was to three instances in the last two decades when Israel came under attack: the Scud missiles sent by Saddam Hussein into Israel in 1991 during the first gulf war; the 3,000 rockets fired at Israel by Hezbollah during their 2006 war; and the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish center in Argentina in the early 1990s. Those attacks each killed 100 to 200 people, wounded scores more and caused several billion dollars of property damage. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the north had to be evacuated from their homes to bomb shelters or further south during the 2006 war.
But there is a broad Israeli assessment that Iran’s response to an attack would be limited.
“If Iran is struck surgically, it will react — no doubt,” said the former Israeli official, echoing Mr. Barak’s comments last year. “But that reaction will be calculated and in proportion to its capabilities. Iran will not set the Middle East on fire.”
“Is 40 missiles on Tel Aviv nice?” the official asked, summing up the Israeli calculus. “No. But it’s better than a nuclear Iran.”
Meanwhile, hopes for a peaceful settlement to the tensions rise slightly on the news that talks between Tehran and diplomats from the six major powers will resume. Reporting from The Guardian says negotiations are underway for resumed talks with the US, UK, France, Russia, and China on the same day that the Iranian Foreign Minister re-emphasized Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decree that nuclear weapons are "a great sin".
The Guardian reports:
Sources said that although there are no high expectations of a breakthrough, there was a growing consensus that every peaceful avenue should be explored in the hope of avoiding a new conflict in the Middle East.
"We have to use every opportunity to test Iran's willingness to talk," a European diplomat said.
After talks between the political directors of the six powers, it is hoped an official response, probably offering to meet in Turkey in March, will be ready this week. It will be issued by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief who acts as the group's coordinator. Ashton has said she is cautiously optimistic about the resumption of talks.
"And then all the things that come from that: where we're going to talk, what the talks will consist of … and what we need to do, what steps we need to take to move forward. So that is being discussed now, the political directors will meet me very shortly in order to tell me the results of those discussions and then we'll move forward from there," Ashton said on Monday. "I'll be in touch then with Iran."
The stakes and pressures at any new round of talks will be extremely high, as they will take place against a backdrop of worsening tensions, a military build-up in the Gulf and constant speculation that Israel may be planning air strikes against Iran's nuclear sites, which the west believes are designed to give Iran the capacity to make weapons.
Tehran says its programme is entirely peaceful, and has defied repeated demands from the UN security council to suspend the most controversial element, the enrichment of uranium. Unless new negotiations can break the deadlock, Iran will face an EU oil embargo in July and US financial sanctions against its oil trade at about the same time.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, in a speech to the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said he expected talks to continue and that he was optimistic they would proceed in the right direction. Reuters reports:
"I would like to re-emphasize that we do not see any glory, pride or power in the nuclear weapons, quite the opposite based on the religious decree issued by our supreme leader, the production, possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, are illegitimate, futile, harmful, dangerous and prohibited as a great sin," he said. [...]
In Geneva, Salehi accused the West of double standards for backing Iran's arch-enemy Israel, the only Middle East state outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and believed to be have the only nuclear arsenal in the region.
"We have clearly stated time and time again there are two alternatives in dealing with the Iranian peaceful nuclear programme. One way is engagement, cooperation and interaction. The other is confrontation and conflict," Salehi said.
"Iran is confident of the peaceful nature of its programme and has always insisted on the first alternative. When it comes to our relevant rights and obligations, our consistent position is that Iran does not seek confrontation, nor does it want anything beyond its inalienable, legitimate rights."