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As tensions with US grow, Iran heightens war readiness

TEHRAN -- Hamid-Reza, a 23-year-old clothing store manager, lost relatives in the Iran-Iraq war and says he would be ready to give his life for Iran against any aggressor if it would bring his country victory. But he fears his country would be no match for the United States, which is locked in an increasingly high-pitched diplomatic battle with Tehran over its nuclear program.

"What will I do?" he asked, speaking on condition his family name not be published. "Get inside an inner tube and go fight against the American battleships in the Persian Gulf?"

As tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased over Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology, Iran has begun publicly preparing for a possible US attack, announcing efforts to bolster and mobilize recruits in citizens' militias and making plans to engage in the type of "asymmetrical" warfare that has plagued American troops in neighboring Iraq, officials and analysts say.

"Iran would respond within 15 minutes to any attack by the United States or any other country," an Iranian official close to the conservative camp that runs the country's security and military apparatus said on condition of anonymity.

Tehran insists it needs nuclear power to meet its burgeoning domestic energy needs and bolster its scientific community. But Washington accuses Iran of using nuclear energy as a fig leaf for a weapons program. France, Britain, and Germany, also suspicious of Iran's nuclear ambitions, have insisted on strict inspections and have urged Iran to give up components of its nuclear program.

US officials say they support the European diplomatic efforts but refuse to rule out a military option if Iran refuses to give up its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon said this month that, as a matter of routine preparedness, it had upgraded its Iranian war plans.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities also have signaled they have been getting ready for war. Newspapers have announced efforts to increase the number of the country's 7 million strong "Basiji" militia, which were deployed in human wave attacks against Saddam Hussein's army during the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Iranian military authorities have paraded long-range, North Korean-designed Shahab missiles before television cameras.

One Western military specialist based in Tehran said on condition of anonymity that over the last year, Iran was sharpening its abilities to wage a guerrilla war.

It remains unclear how much of the recent military activity amounts to an actual mobilization and how much is a propaganda ploy. Iranian officials and analysts have said that they want to highlight the potential costs of an attack on Iran to frighten the American public and raise the stakes for US officials.

"Right now it's a psychological war," said Nasser Hadian, professor of political science at the University of Tehran, who recently returned from a three-year stint as a scholar at Columbia University. "Pressure from other countries and inside America is important, but it won't prevent an attack. The only thing that will prevent an attack is that if America knows it will pay a heavy price."

Iran is also attempting to give the impression that it is bolstering its conventional forces. Last December, Iran announced what it called its largest war games ever, deploying 120,000 troops as well as tanks, helicopters, and armored vehicles along its western border. More recently, Iran's press reported that the Iranian Air Force had received orders to engage any plane that violates Iranian airspace, after reports emerged of US spy planes monitoring Iran's skies.

Iran's army includes 350,000 active-duty soldiers and 220,000 conscripts. The elite Revolutionary Guards number 120,000, many of them draftees. The Navy and Air Force total 70,000 men.

The armed forces have about 2,000 tanks, 300 combat aircraft, three submarines, hundreds of helicopters, and at least a dozen Russian-made Scud missile launchers of the type Hussein used against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Iran also has an undetermined number of Shahab missiles based on North Korean designs that have ranges of about 1,500 miles.

But outside military specialists and Iranians concede that the country's conventional hardware is antiquated, worn down by years of US and European sanctions.

"Most of Iran's military equipment is aging or second-rate, and much of it is worn," military analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in a December assessment of Iran's military. "Iran lost some 50 to 60 percent of its land order of battle in the climactic battles of the Iran-Iraq war, and it has never had large-scale access to the modern weapons and military technology necessary to replace them."

Still, Iran could create myriad troubles.

Iran's security forces also include a number of intelligence agencies with extensive overseas experience and assets, specialists say. Iran's highly classified Quds forces, which answer directly to Iranian leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are believed to have operations in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Turkey, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and North Africa, as well as Europe and North America, according to a December report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Within minutes of any attack, Iran's air and sea forces could threaten oil shipments in the Persian Gulf as well as Gulf of Oman. Iran controls the northern coast of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which oil tankers must navigate to get out of the Gulf, and could sink ships, mine sea routes, or bomb oil platforms, according to the center's report.

Iran could activate Hezbollah militia in Lebanon to launch attacks on Israel. It could have operatives attack US interests in Azerbaijan, Central Asia, or Turkey.

But most analysts agree that the biggest trump card Iranians could play is to unleash havoc in neighboring Iraq, where Iraqis who spent years in Iran as exiles are about to assume a dominant role in the government.

Though the United States alleges Tehran already has been interfering in Iraq, many analysts brush off the current infiltration as minor compared to the damage Iran could cause by allowing Iraqi militia to bring heavy weapons into Iran, by backing the most extreme Islamist groups instead of the moderates it now supports, or by dispatching operatives across the long, porous border.

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