Iranian general: Tehran has plan to retaliate if Israel attacks

Thursday, September 20, 2007

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran has drawn up plans to bomb Israel if the Jewish state should attack, the deputy air force commander said Wednesday, adding to tensions already heated up by an Israeli airstrike on Syria and Western calls for more U.N. sanctions against Tehran.

Other Iranian officials also underlined their country's readiness to fight if the United States or Israel attacks, a reflection of concerns in Tehran that demands by the United States and its allies for Iran to curtail its nuclear program could escalate into military action.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Sunday that the international community should prepare for the possibility of war in the event Iran obtains atomic weapons, although he later stressed the focus is still on diplomatic pressures.

The comments come as the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, is touring Persian Gulf countries seeking to form a united front of Arab allies against Iran's growing influence in the region.

Iran has periodically raised alarms over the possibility of war, particularly when the West brings up talk of sanctions over Tehran's rejection of a U.N. Security Council demand that it halt uranium enrichment.

"We have drawn up a plan to strike back at Israel with our bombers if this regime [Israel] makes a silly mistake," Iran's deputy air force commander, Gen. Mohammad Alavi, said in an interview with the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Alavi warned that Israel is within range of Iran's medium-range missiles and fighter-bombers.

The Iranian air force had no immediate comment on the Fars report. But Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar told the official IRNA news agency that "we keep various options open to respond to threats. ... We will make use of them if required."

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards also weighed in, saying Iran "has prepared its people for a possible confrontation against any aggression."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Alavi's comment "is not constructive and it almost seems provocative."

"Israel doesn't seek a war with its neighbors. And we all are seeking, under the U.N. Security Council resolutions, for Iran to comply with its obligations" under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, she said.

During a stop in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington is committed to diplomacy, but added that the United States hasn't taken any military "options off the table." She said that "it can't be business as usual" with Iran, a country whose president has spoken of wiping Israel off the map.

For diplomacy to work, she said, "it has to have both a way for Iran to pursue a peaceful resolution of this issue and it has to have teeth, and the U.N. Security Council and other measures are providing teeth."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said his government took Iran's "threat very seriously and so does the international community."

"Unfortunately we are all too accustomed to this kind of bellicose, extremist and hateful language coming from Iran," he said.

Israeli warplanes in 1981 destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor being built by Saddam Hussein's regime, and many in the region fear Israel or the U.S. could mount airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities if Tehran doesn't bow to Western demands to cease uranium enrichment.

Iran, which says it isn't trying to produce material for atomic bombs but rather fuel for reactors that would generate electricity, has said in the past that Israel would be the first retaliatory target for any attack. But Alavi's comments were the first to mention specific contingency plans.

David Ochmanek, an international policy analyst with the U.S.-based RAND Corporation, said Iran has the capability to attack Israel with a limited number of ballistic missiles, but Israel could potentially inflict greater damage on Iran.

"If Israelis attacked Iran it would be with high precision weapons that could destroy military targets," he said. "They could destroy Iran's nuclear reactor and do damage to the enrichment."

"The Iranian response would be quite different," Ochmanek said. "It would be small numbers of highly inaccurate missiles and the intention would be to do this for psychological purposes rather than to destroy discrete targets. It's an asymmetrical relationship."

A top Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander warned earlier this week that U.S. bases around Iran would also be legitimate targets.

"Today, the United States is within Iran's sight and all around our country, but it doesn't mean we have been encircled. They are encircled themselves and are within our range," Gen. Mohammed Hasan Kousehchi told IRNA.

U.S. forces are in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Persian Gulf, Kuwait hosts a major U.S. base, the U.S. 5th Fleet patrols from its base in Bahrain, and the U.S. Central Command is housed in Qatar.

Tensions have been raised by a mysterious Israeli air incursion over Syria on Sept. 6. Israel has placed a tight news blackout on the reported incident, while Syria has said little. U.S. officials said it involved an airstrike on a target.

One U.S. official said the attack hit weapons heading for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran, but there also has been speculation the Israelis hit a nascent nuclear facility or were studying routes for a possible future strike on Iran.

Former Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he was involved "from the beginning" in the alleged airstrike, the first public mention by an Israeli leader about the incident. Netanyahu, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, did not give further details.

Edward Djerejian, founding director of Rice University's Baker Institute, said the accusation that Israel had violated Syrian airspace, and possibly launched an attack on Syrian territory, was putting new concerns on an already tense situation.

"The region is very nervous," said Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria.

With Iran adding to the talk of military options, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns called Wednesday for U.N. Security Council members and U.S. allies to help push for a third round of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

But Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Moscow opposes new sanctions, adding they could hurt a recent agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency aimed at resolving questions about the Iranian program.

Two U.N. resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran have failed to persuade the country to suspend uranium enrichment.

Burns said he would host a Friday meeting of the Security Council's permanent members -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. Talks on a new resolution are also expected next week in New York, when world leaders attend the annual ministerial session of the U.N. General Assembly.

Associated Press Writers Sarah DiLorenzo and Carley Petesch in New York and Mark Lavie in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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