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 Sunday, June 04, 2006

IRAN's Retaliatory Options If Cornered by US in the Nuclear Crisis


Katherine Shrader

Read here full article by Katherine Shrader in Associated Press

Iran could direct Hezbollah to enlist its widespread international support network to aid in terrorist attacks, if cornered by the West over its nuclear program, intelligence officials say.

Several Western intelligence officials said they have seen signs that Hezbollah's fundraisers, recruiters and criminal elements could be adapted to provide logistical help to terrorist operatives.

Such help could include obtaining forged travel documents or off-the-shelf technology — global positioning equipment and night goggles, for example — that could be used for military purposes.

Leadership in Hezbollah is exercised by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a Shiite Muslim cleric who took over after Sheik Abbas Musawi was killed in southern Lebanon in an Israeli helicopter strike in 1992.

Hezbollah gets significant support from Iran, Shiite communities and particularly the Lebanese diaspora. One official said the group has access to several hundred million dollars a year, much of it going to the social service network in southern Lebanon.

So far there are no signs the Iranian-backed group is planning an imminent attack on U.S. interests. But that possibility has counterterrorism agencies keeping close watch as the friction with Iran grows.

U.S. analysts believe the potential is greater for Iran to use terrorism to retaliate, rather than to strike first. But they have considered scenarios under which Iran may view its own pre-emptive attack as a deterrent.

One senior official said that if Iran was backed into a corner and considered U.S.-led military action as inevitable, the Iranians might calculate that terrorism could break international unity, increase pressure on the U.S. or shift American public opinion.

U.S. analysts, however, are cautious in their judgments about what might lead Iran to order strikes.

Iran insists its aims are peaceful; leading U.S. officials say they are convinced the Iranians intend to develop a nuclear weapon within the next decade.

John Negroponte suggested that an Iranian bomb could be a fact in as little as four years away, although he admitted, "We don't have clear-cut knowledge."

Iran's president pledged Friday that the West would not deprive his country of nuclear technology.

The Bush administration and U.S. allies know Iran could order attacks. Some officials believe that threat is a bargaining chip worth more to Iran if kept in reserve.

U.S. intelligence agencies are studying Iran's options to retaliate: using oil as a weapon, attacking Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, unleashing Hezbollah or deploying other tactics.

In many countries, Hezbollah is praised for providing education, medical care and housing, particularly in Lebanon's south, and raising money for it is legal.

Hezbollah, which means Party of God, was founded in 1982 to respond to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The radical Shiite organization advocates for Israel's elimination and the establishment of an Islamic government in Lebanon modeled after the religious theocracy in Iran.

With some exceptions, Hezbollah has not targeted the United States in recent years — a strategic decision that gives the group more freedom to operate, according to one U.S. counterterrorism official.

Steven Monblatt, the head of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, said tensions with Iran could lead Hezbollah to take steps to prepare attacks on Western interests in Latin America and elsewhere.

"I think it is legitimate to be concerned about situations where terrorist groups will not have an operational base, but will have made the preparations to establish one," said Monblatt, a former State Department official. "I don't know anyone alleging an operational cell right now. Now, how do you distinguish an operational cell from a sleeper operation — a more kind of logistical base?"

Kevin Brock, a career FBI agent who is now deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently told reporters that the U.S. has active investigations into Hezbollah around the world.

"The prioritization obviously has been al-Qaida, but that doesn't mean Hezbollah has dropped off the screen by any stretch of the imagination," Brock said.

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