Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed off a new missile Tuesday as tensions escalated in the confrontation between the Islamic regime and its adversaries over a controversial nuclear program.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said the improved medium-range missile boasted better accuracy but was defensive. "We do not seek it for conquest [or] domination of neighbouring countries and the world," he said, while other senior Iranian political figures unleashed a salvo of new threats against Israel.
"All the Zionist regimes' military centres will be destroyed completely on the very first day of war as they are a high-priority target for Iranian missiles," said Avaz Heidarpour, a senior member of Iran's national security committee.
Echoing that hawkish tone on a day celebrating Iran's military, Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi predicted "one million Jews will flee Israel in the first one or two weeks" of any war with Iran.
Both senior Iranian officials were quoted by Fars, the hardline Iranian news agency with close connections to the Revolutionary Guards. Their comments came less than a week after Israel's outgoing home-front defence minister said a war could last a month and warned Israel to be prepared for a barrage of missiles.
"Just as the citizens of Japan have to realize that they can have earthquakes, so the citizens of Israel have to realize that if they live here, they have to be prepared to expect missiles on the home front," Matan Vilnai said.
While Iran was showing off the surface-to-surface missile with a 300-kilometre range and dubbed "Conqueror," there were reports in Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his national security adviser for a tête-à-tête with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an important spiritual leader.
In the past Israeli leaders have consulted with the 92-year-old Shas Party spiritual leader in advance of major military operations and the meeting was seen as another step in war preparedness.
Mr. Netanyahu has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel and vowed to prevent the Islamic theocracy from crossing the nuclear-weapons threshold. In the United States, both President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney have said they too will act – if necessary by resorting to war – to keep Tehran's ruling mullahs from getting nuclear weapons.
Mr. Obama has sent additional warships to the Persian Gulf and approved an extra $70-million in military aid to Israel. Mr. Romney, who visited Israel this month, has been even more hawkish on Iran. "It's pretty straightforward in my view," the Republican challenger said last spring. "If Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon."
Despite the sabre-rattling, few analysts expect an imminent Israeli strike. Iran's widely dispersed and often deeply buried nuclear sites would make any single attack – of the type that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 and an unfinished Syrian reactor in 2007 – impossible. Instead an extended bombing campaign would be required.
Sanctions continue to distort and damage Iran's oil-based economy, although there is no indication that Tehran is buckling nor that the Islamic Republic's leaders are willing to scrap the controversial nuclear program. Tehran insists its nuclear effort is entirely for power generation and the enrichment of uranium is solely for research and medical purposes.
U.S. and European Union sanctions have cut Iranian oil exports by an estimated one million barrels a day, according to a Goldman Sachs report. Another 500,000 barrels of contracted sales cannot be delivered because Iran cannot charter tankers to ship its oil because insurers will not cover the risks. Tehran has tried to re-flag dozens of its tankers in nations such as Tuvalu and Tanzania, but both countries have – under threat from Washington – ordered the ships delisted.
Although some big Iranian oil importers, such as India and South Korea, have announced they will resume purchases and have arranged alternative insurance cover, sanctions may be costing Tehran more than $100-million daily and its production is reportedly at a two-decade low.
Meanwhile, Iran is seeking to skirt financial sanctions blacklisting its major banks. Reuters news service quoted international diplomats as saying Tehran has attempted to use neighbouring Armenia to avoid banking sanctions. Last week, The New York Times reported that Iran had funnelled large amounts of cash through Iraqi banks to avoid sanctions.
In Tehran, currency traders said a growing network of underground banking links from Dubai to Malaysia and India have sprung up to replace the blacklisted banks.