Anne Penketh: Iranians don't believe that military strikes are coming

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Iran has become accustomed to Israeli threats of military action aimed at halting its nuclear programme. The Iranians have adopted a two-track response: to warn of the regional conflagration that would ensue, and to try to persuade the world that its intentions are purely peaceful, while insisting on its right to enrich uranium which is enshrined by treaty.

To that end, they point out that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa banning Iran from holding weapons of mass destruction. A senior Iranian official admitted to visiting journalists that his country is well aware that, "if we attack Israel with one bomb, America would attack us with thousands of bombs. It's suicide".

They also know that a renewed Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz would raise record oil prices still higher. The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned that Iran would target US interests around the world in case of military attack. "If there is any attack, the whole region will be in flames," said an Iranian diplomat yesterday. "There would be a very, very strong response."

It is presumed that the targets the Iranians have in mind are the 150,000 US soldiers in Iraq and the 23,500 in Afghanistan. The Israelis must also be prepared for Iran to reactivate its Hizbollah allies in Syria, and Hamas in Gaza, which began observing a truce with Israel last Thursday.

But privately, Iranian officials continue to believe that the talk of military strikes is part of the West's carrot-and-stick pressure tactics aimed at coercing Iran into halting its uranium enrichment programme. They think the US is too tied down in Iraq to risk another military adventure with uncertain consequences. While the Israelis wield the stick, the Europeans and the US are dangling a carrot of a guaranteed fuel supply for a civil nuclear programme, which is what the Iranians say they want, although they insist on a domestic fuel cycle which is still not on offer from a West that fears a possible diversion towards a nuclear bomb.

The latest diplomatic offer to Tehran, endorsed by the US, contains a promise to renounce military action in case of an Iranian suspension. If Iran did agree to halt enrichment, the big powers would reaffirm "the obligation under the UN charter to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state...", the offer addressed to the Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, states.

Although no official response to the New York Times report was forthcoming yesterday, the religious establishment lost no time before hitting back. "If the enemies, particularly Israel and its American backers, adopt a language of force against Iran, they can be sure that they will receive a strong slap on the face from Iran," said a conservative cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami. "The Iranian nation is a logical and brave nation and its reply to logical methods will be logical."

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