Iran's bellicose war games make serious diplomacy unlikely

A look at Iran's military posture and war games suggests an ominous conclusion: many Iranian generals think they are ready to fight the US.

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Last week, the Iranian armed forces carried out yet another exercise in the Strait of Hormuz. This latest war game, dubbed "Velayat 91", took place just a few weeks before Tehran is scheduled to enter a new round of negotiations over its nuclear programme with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany - known as P5+1.

These discussions will be crucial in determining the course of events in the long saga of Iran's nuclear programme. If no breakthrough is achieved, tension between Iran and the West will likely increase and with it the possibility of a regional war.

Analysts and observers are speculating about Tehran's next move. Will Iran call the West's bluff and press ahead with its nuclear programme, and other anti-western policies, undeterred by threats and toughened economic sanctions?

Or will Iran, its income cut by more than 50 per cent due to economic pressure and political isolation, now accept a compromise deal? Will Tehran be able to make concessions just six months before Iranians go to the polls to select their new president, in a tense environment where the leadership has kept up a strident rhetoric of defiance and animosity towards the West? What about events in Syria, Iran's sole Arab strategic ally?

The list of questions could go on and on.

Away from all the noise, however, certain facts must be considered if we are to make a logical assessment.

One of these is that Iran has not stopped its nuclear programme. Centrifuges are still spinning at more than one site. More uranium is being enriched daily, and at higher levels.

Perhaps equally important is the development of delivery systems. Iran's build-up of ballistic and cruise missiles has continued, although it has been slowed somewhat because of a reported shortage of funds caused by the sanctions.

Iran is procuring more variants of the Shehab and Sajjil ballistic missiles, plus the high-calibre long-range Zelzal artillery rockets. It is also procuring and testing new variants of the Raad and Noor cruise missiles that are now available in surface-to-surface (ship-to-ship) models and ground-to-surface (land-to-ship) versions. Raad and Noor missiles were fired in last week's war games, reportedly hitting their targets.

Velayat 91 was meant to test the country's sea- and land-based air defence systems, which use a variety of locally produced missiles and weapons that have been reverse-engineered from weapons acquired from Russia and China.

Iran realises that its air force is obsolete compared to the air power of the US and its regional allies. Tehran failed to acquire advanced air defence systems from Russia and China, focusing instead on developing its own capabilities. Leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard have boasted that they can shoot down and even capture US reconnaissance drones.

As usual, Iranian leaders have warned against any attack on their territory and have threatened dire consequences for the aggressor and the region.

Despite its many shortcomings, Iran is adamant on asserting itself as a superpower. Among other measures, it went about this by dispatching naval ships to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, by leading a regional military axis with Syria and Hizbollah, and by building its influence as far away as South America.

In fact, Iran's involvement in South America has grown so significant that US legislation, signed last week by President Barack Obama, ordered the development of a new strategy to address the issue.

Another fact displayed by Iran's various war games is Tehran's growing confidence in its military capabilities. In military exercises nobody shoots back, so one can make easy assumptions and claims about destroying all "enemy targets" and achieving victory.

Repeating this process over a few years would likely lead to the dangerous probability that many Iranian military commanders already believe, or will come to believe, that they can defeat the US and its allies in a military showdown.

This possibility is only reinforced by the passive stance of US forces in the region. America has chosen to avoid any confrontation with the Iranians, and to walk away from incidents that could otherwise trigger a war. This is wise of the US, but could be building the misguided belief among Iranian commanders that the US is a defeated, retreating power lacking the capacity to enter a new war.

Adding up the facts - Iran pursuing its nuclear programme despite sanctions, its accelerated military build-up and its excessive military exercises - leads to one conclusion: Tehran has invested too much and gone too far to make any concessions and backtrack, unless it can obtain major political and economic concessions from the West.

The question is how much the West is willing to give at this stage, and how much the Iranians think they can concede and still look victorious at election time in June.

Based on previous experiences, and the history of Iranian negotiations with the P5+1, one can expect only negative results - little if any progress - at the next round of talks.

And failed talks could lead to a more protracted conflict. This situation is taking its toll on all involved parties, and time is definitely not in anyone's favour.

So intransigence and the failure of politics and of economic sanctions can have only one conclusion, namely war.

Riad Khawaji is the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis