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Page last updated at 09:47 GMT, Thursday, 10 July 2008 10:47 UK

Mounting sense of crisis over Iran

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iranian missiles are test-fired (9 July 2008)
Some of the missiles tested could reach Israel

A day after a major Iranian ballistic missile test provoked international condemnation, the front pages in Iran are covered with pictures of the missiles soaring into the sky.

There is a note of pride in the coverage, and perhaps just a little satisfaction that Iran has finally got the world's attention.

For days, Iranian military leaders have been issuing ever more blood-curdling warnings about Iran's response to any attack.

The head of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari, threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz - the lifeline of the world's oil supplies.

Another official said Tel Aviv and US interests in the Gulf would be the first targets in any response.

And just in case the message was not crystal clear, yet another commander said orders had been given to dig 320,000 graves in Iran's border provinces, in which to bury the bodies of invading soldiers.

'Incentives'

There is a note of bravado in all of this, but also an indication that Iran is now taking the threat of attack very seriously.

What seems to have provoked this is a recent Israeli military exercise, apparently a rehearsal for bombing Iran's nuclear facilities.

Manouchehr Mottaki and Javier Solana (14 June 2008)
Iran's government says it will not compromise on its nuclear policy

While it might not appear so from the Iranian missile test, the response from Tehran has not all been defiance.

Last month, the EU's foreign policy representative, Javier Solana, brought to Tehran a new package of "incentives" designed to encourage it back to the negotiating table.

A similar package was offered two years ago, and rejected out of hand. But this time, maybe because of the growing talk of war, Iran has been more circumspect.

The foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, said Iran should accept the proposals, or at least agree to talk about them.

But Mr Velayati, and the spokesman of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, quickly made it clear Iran should not compromise on its nuclear policy.

Iran's position should become clear in the coming days, when we should see whether new talks with Javier Solana are opened, and whether Iran is willing to take up an offer to briefly freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for a freeze on new sanctions.

Weak governments

Meanwhile, Iran is also coming under increasing pressure from financial sanctions.

The EU has just imposed sanctions on Bank Melli, Iran's biggest bank, and the bank that handled much of Iran's trade with Europe.

Map of missile range

The sanctions are not impossible to get round, but they are the latest step in isolating Iran from the world's financial system.

There are other factors building this sense of crisis.

The Bush administration is counting out its remaining time in office. If they want to take military action, time is running out.

Then there is the prospect of Barack Obama becoming president. His suggestion of unconditional talks with Tehran may scare the Israelis, but inspire the Iranians to play for time.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may well lose office in September. For the best or worst of motives, it is another possible reason for early Israeli action.

President Ahmadinejad himself faces growing criticism for the dismal state of his country's economy as he prepares for the presidential election in a year's time.

So, weak governments in Washington, Tehran, and Israel, are squaring up. That is never a good formula for rational policy-making.

As moderate voices get drowned out, the room for compromise is getting narrower by the day.


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