Iran’s test firing of its medium and long-range Shahab-3 missiles ratchets up simmering tensions in West Asia. Obviously intended to signal Iran’s readiness to hit back in case of an Israeli or US attack, the tests were conducted at the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, through which almost half of the world’s oil passes.
Even allowing for Iran’s habit of overstating its missile capabilities, the Shahab-3 missile could target Israel, US bases in the Gulf and foreign troops in Iraq. The tests follow Israeli air exercises over the eastern Mediterranean that were widely speculated to be actually dry runs for strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, if diplomacy failed to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium.
With latest reports suggesting US President George W Bush has given his nod to a deniable air strike on Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, the situation is suspiciously reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq war. Never mind if no president not even Mr Bush would be daft enough to open a new war front on the eve of US presidential polls. One possibility is that Tehran could be flexing its missile muscle to send out conflicting signals.
Iran’s hardline regime depends on isolation and defiance for its political survival and nothing suits it like a show of strength before heading into talks a time-tested diplomatic formula used by many nations like North Korea (whose Kim Jong Il regime used political brinkmanship for years to gain concessions from the West). Especially since the US and its allies have offered to broaden economic and political ties with Iran, if it halts its nuclear programme. While similar offers in the past ignored Iran’s security needs, this one speaks of respecting “territorial integrity”, and supporting Iran “in playing an important and constructive role in international affairs”. So, could the serial missile launches and harsh rhetoric then indicate Iran’s readiness to adopt a less rigid attitude in negotiations with the west? A tense world would certainly hope so.