Iran rattles its sabres, US sticks to its guns

In an apparent response to reports that the US has increased its military presence in the Gulf, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' air force said on Wednesday that missiles had been aimed at 35 US military bases in the Gulf as well as targets in Israel, ready to be launched in case of an attack.

The semi-official Fars news agency reported Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh as saying: "We have thought of measures to set up bases and deploy missiles to destroy all these bases in the early minutes after an attack."

Hajizadeh's remarks were made on the sidelines of a three-day war game called Great Prophet Seven, which Iranian officials claimed was a show of defiance against western pressure, including the US and EU embargo against imports of Iranian oil that came into effect on July 1.

"These [US] bases are all in range of our missiles, and the occupied lands [a reference to Israel] are also good targets for us," Hajizadeh said.

Capable of hitting Israel
During the exercise, the elite Revolutionary Guards – who have their own military divisions separate from the Iranian army – test-fired dozens of missiles, including Shahab-3 and Sejil, which are said to have a range of 1 900km, capable of hitting Israel.

The US military has several bases in the Gulf, and the navy's Bahrain-based 5th fleet is 193km from the Iranian coast. Israel is about 966km away from Iran.

Domestically, the war games were also aimed at showing progress in the missile industry, despite a series of dramatic setbacks in recent years.

In November 2011, an explosion at the Alghadir missile base, 48km from Tehran, killed Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, who was described as the "architect" of the country's missile programme. It also killed at least two dozen members of the Revolutionary Guards working at the base.

The US has significantly reinforced its military presence in the Gulf, increasing the number of fighter jets and minesweepers, in preparation for a possible blocking of the strait of Hormuz by Iran.

Iranian officials have signalled that in reaction to the oil sanctions they may shut the strait, a vital passageway in the Gulf through which a fifth of the world's crude passes in tankers.

In a recent development, the Iranian parliament said it would discuss a bill proposed by at least 100 MPs which requires the government to block oil tankers in the Gulf.

Israel has said it may carry out a pre-emptive military strike against Iran because of its nuclear activities, but there are doubts about whether it has the logistical capacity to do that without the help of its main ally, the US.

As the oil embargo came into force this week, the Iranian authorities showed mixed reactions to the economic sanctions, admitting the severity of the pressure but at the same time remaining adamant that they could survive.

Low-level contacts
A meeting in Istanbul between Iranian and international nuclear experts ended in the early hours of Thursday morning with an agreement to keep low-level contacts going in the hope of narrowing the substantial gap between Tehran and the major powers over the scope and scale of the Iranian nuclear programme. 

Although the differences between the sides came into greater focus in Istanbul, diplomats said there was no sign of that gap closing.

The Istanbul talks lasted 13 hours over five sessions, ending at 1am, and went into exhaustive technical detail on the proposals put on the table in Baghdad in May by six world powers – the US, UK, China, France, Germany and Russia.

"It was a technical meeting that went into incredible detail," said a European diplomat.

The six-nation proposal laid down in Baghdad was for Iran to stop producing 20%-enriched uranium (a particular proliferation concern) to shut the underground plant at Fordow, where much of it is made, and to ship its existing 20% stockpile out of the country, in return for a range of incentives such as reactor fuel plates, nuclear safety assistance and aircraft parts.

At later talks in Moscow, Iran said it might discuss its 20% enrichment but wanted international guarantees of its right to enrich uranium in principle and for economic sanctions to be dropped.

"We went into great detail on our proposal – for example, what do we mean by closing Fordow, and what our expectations and timelines are," the European diplomat said. " And the Iranians expanded on their proposal."

'Fruitful exchanges'
The diplomat did not provide the details, saying only there were "fruitful exchanges, which mostly involved us probing them".

The Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said there had been no breakthrough or decisive progress in Istanbul.

"But we are not losing heart or think that the Istanbul meeting of experts was a failure," Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency. "On the contrary, there are grounds to speak of certain progress."

Another source familiar with the talks said there was no sign of the difference between the two position narrowing, and no sign that sanctions were having any tangible effect in changing Tehran's negotiating position.

A meeting between mid-ranking officials from the European Union and Iran is due to take place in the next couple of weeks to discuss whether any common ground emerged in Istanbul.

High-level negotiations were suspended last month after the Moscow talks failed to make progress.

Diplomatic contacts were downgraded but kept alive, to keep the door to diplomacy ajar, in the hope of fending off the threat of military action by Israel. – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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