Middle East

Threatening Language in Iran Nuclear Standoff

France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (C) in front of the Elysee presidential palace in Paris on Sept. 19 after a weekly cabinet meeting. Kouchner lashed out at the press the day before, in the aftermath of an uproar sparked by his recent comments regarding a possible war with Iran. (Photo: Thomas Coex / AFP-Getty Images)

In a crisis that appears past its immediate boiling point but simmering on nevertheless, the Iranian-French clash of the past weekend has brought the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to his senses. He semi-retracted his statement that the world should prepare for a nuclear war if Iran created a bomb, by telling French daily newspaper Le Monde that negotiations needed to continue.

Meanwhile, military sources have indicated that the Iranians are lying when they say they have a large number of missiles ready to attack Israeli and American military troops. All parties involved are beginning to show their true colors. The Iranians themselves, not the least; a Web site believed to be close to the Tehran government threatened that the country possessed 600 sophisticated missiles. It's not clear what exactly the Iranian site, Assar Iran, indicated as to the extent of their capability, but expert sources said the assertion was an exaggeration on all counts. It's wait-and-see in regard to what becomes of the Sept. 21 summit meeting of the Permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

World powers have been conducting talks about Iran's nuclear program regularly for the past months, but over a recent period there have been a few modest surprises as officials have begun to speak in military terms. It makes the situation seem more urgent than ever. The Iranians were issuing material threats when they recently said that American targets were within reach. The United States and Britain have started sending limited troops to the Iran-Iraq border and army officers have said they are now "within rifle range." Iran views this as a provocation, and has issued several warnings about its unease with the situation.

Either to retaliate for the French comments, or to save face after an attack that the Israelis reportedly carried out against Iran's ally Syria, the Iranians voiced immense displeasure with the foreign minister's remarks. Mohammad Hassan Koussechi, a high-ranking Revolutionary Guards general, said that any bombing raid on targets in Iran would provoke a tough response. Koussechi threatened that his country would target United States positions in Iraq and Afghanistan that "are within our range." He also called Kouchner's words "even more inflammatory" than Washington.

As to the Iranian missiles, the Assar Iran Web site — monitored by the Israeli DEBKAfile news source — reported that armaments are purportedly ready for action. "Iran will shoot 600 missiles at Israel if it is attacked," the site said, adding that the strikes would "only be the first reaction."

Other military sources deny that Iran is that strong militarily. The cynics indicate that the country has at the most several dozens of such sophisticated missiles, which are capable of a simultaneous barrage, but it certainly doesn't have sufficient launchers to fire a large number of them.

DEBKAfile further detailed that: "what Iran does have is several dozen Shehab-3 missiles fitted with new warheads containing thousands of tiny cluster bombs. These have since early summer been pointed at Israel's Negev desert nuclear reactor at Dimona and U.S. military targets in the Gulf and Iraq as a deterrent. … Furthermore, the Israeli operation in Syria ten days ago showed Iran's deterrent effort to be a washout. Tehran failed to come to its ally's aid."

In addition, according to the DEBKAfile, United States intelligence agencies' gleaned from war games conducted a few months ago that while the Iranians like to show off large numbers of long-range Shehab-3s, most of these seem to be Shehab-2 missiles, which reach only half the distance of the Shehab-3. Shehab-2 missiles are imprecise and cannot be considered reliable, the sources indicate.

Israel hasn't openly confirmed it attacked Syria, an event that went largely unnoticed internationally. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to reporters, said he "respects" Syrian President Bashar Assad and repeated his invitation to his counterpart to enter direct negotiations without any preconditions. The speculation surrounding the reported Israeli strike varies from it being a neocon plot framing the North Koreans as aiding the Syrians with their nuclear development, to it being a test of Syria's radar defense system and the Iranian response. Israel might have also been after jamming arms shipments to Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters. Was it a dress rehearsal for a possible future strike on Iranian nuclear facilities?

Assad has not officially commented on the attack, but Kuwaiti newspaper A-Siasa reported that the Syrian president has set up a committee to "investigate how classified information on the infiltration of Israeli planes was leaked to Arab media."

Analysts and Israeli diplomats quoted by the Jerusalem Post assessed the French position, and said that Kouchner and Sarkozy are essentially "French," still, with a trace of their closer ties with the United States becoming noticeable. Others confirm this. Sarkozy and his foreign minister are unwavering compared to their predecessors on Iraq and the war on terror, and Sarkozy has spoken out strongly against an Iran that continues to enrich uranium ever since he took office.

"It wasn't too long ago that France was almost a dirty word in the United States," wrote the Middle East Times. "French goods found themselves on a nationwide boycott list as French wines were being poured into the gutters by overzealous patriots, angry at the French for their stance regarding the Iraq war. That was because the French president at the time, Jacques Chirac, was opposed to the US invasion of Iraq and publicly spoke out on his feelings." The news source added that times have changed, and that the remarks by the French foreign minister sounded even more hawkish than Vice President Dick Cheney's stance.

"The new occupants of the Elysee [Presidential palace] want to copy the White House," the Iranian IRNA news agency posited in a recent editorial.

Olmert, who has lived in a nuclear-vibed world for much longer (than the French), took a calm approach. "We are concerned, but we don't have to lose our head," he said.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Angelique van Engelen.