The Missile Threat From Iran

ByABC News via via logo

April 3, 2006 — -- The Iranians continue to ratchet up the tension with the United States, testing a high-speed torpedo this weekend that they say can destroy warships and submarines. This follows the test-firing just two days earlier of a new multiple warhead missile they say can evade radar.

Despite the provocation, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice downplayed the possibility of a military strike, although she did not rule it out.

"We are committed to a diplomatic course because we believe that a diplomatic course can work," she said on ITVL's "Jonathan Dimbleby Programme."

In a front-page story on Sunday, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence analysts believed Iran would retaliate against U.S. military strikes on its nuclear sites by carrying out terrorist attacks, including on American soil.

"Iran is the No. 1 world sponsor of terrorism," said Richard Clarke, ABC consultant and former national security official.

"Iran has a host of instruments they could throw at us, and they are much better organized and well-equipped than al Qaeda. And in the event of a U.S. attack on Iran, you could expect attacks on the U.S."

The United States believes Iran is attempting to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies the accusation, saying it intends only to generate electricity. The U.N. Security Council has demanded Iran give up uranium enrichment, a crucial part of the nuclear weapons production process. Washington is pressing for sanctions if Tehran, Iran's capital, continues its nuclear program.

Clarke said that Iran had three terrorist organizations it sponsored or controlled. The most important is the Lebanon-based paramilitary organization Hezbollah, which destroyed the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and killed 241 Marines. Hezbollah is suspected in the 1996 attack on the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia.

Iran also has control over Shiite militias in Iraq and has its own special forces called the Qods Force. These three organizations make al Qaeda look like a kindergarten, Clarke said.

Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has warned that the United States will "suffer" if it takes action against its nuclear program. Some have seen that as a threat to increase militant action in the region or turn to the oil weapon.

Clarke said the missile test might actually hurt Iran.

"The missile test may backfire. Iran is claiming that missile has multiple warheads," he said. "We don't know if that's true, but you can argue the only reason for having multiple warheads is if you have nuclear weapons. So Iran may have further confirmed in the eyes of U.S. analysts that it is in fact trying to get nuclear weapons. That, in turn, will step up the pressure by the U.S. on Iran."

If diplomacy fails and a military strike becomes the only option, experts fear a devastating response by Iran and not by conventional means.

"Their best option is to use other ways of attacking to support terrorist and extremists," said Anthony Cordesman, an ABC News national security analyst.

Last month, a senior Iranian official warned the United States that "it may have the power to cause harm and pain, but it is also susceptible to harm and pain."

At the time, some analysts believed that was a reference to withholding oil but now they are not so certain.

"U.S. policymakers have to be thinking a move ahead," Clarke said. "They have to assume: If we attack Iran, Iran will attack us. So what's step two? Do we bomb Iran even more? Where does that get you?"

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