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Iran begins air-defense drills to protect nuclear sites

Iran says Israel would pay a heavy price if the West launched airstrikes. Meanwhile, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi praises anti-government protesters.

November 23, 2009|By Borzou Daragahi

Reporting from Beirut — Iran on Sunday launched what it described as its biggest air-defense drill ever with the aim of preparing to protect its nuclear sites from possible airstrikes as international talks to resolve the long stalemate over the nation's atomic research program falter.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi continued to put pressure on the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, praising protesters for turning an annual march against the U.S. into an anti-government rally that was met by violence by security forces.

"What we saw in the streets was a huge campaign against the people," he said in an interview posted on his website. "Throughout the history of the revolution, I had never seen such a scene and such deployment of so many forces. [It] showed how they fear this movement and what grandeur it possesses."

Mousavi has been the figurehead of a grass-roots opposition movement that sprang out of Iran's disputed June 12 election, in which he was declared the runner-up to Ahmadinejad. Analysts say the domestic crisis has complicated international efforts to forge a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at producing weapons.

The tussle over what Tehran insists is a civilian nuclear program has become wedded to Iran's domestic politics. Both hard-liners and moderates have criticized an international proposal to exchange the bulk of Iran's potentially dual-use nuclear material for fuel rods fitted for a medical reactor, though Ahmadinejad and his allies have praised it.

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that Iran had not rejected the U.S.-backed fuel-swap proposal but needed guarantees that it would receive the fuel rods in exchange for its low-enriched uranium.

"We have enough reasons to distrust the West because of their behavior in the last 30 years," Ali Asghar Soltanieh told the magazine.

The Obama administration has vowed to resolve the crisis diplomatically but is threatening new economic sanctions. Others in Washington talk of possible military action.

"If biting sanctions do not persuade the Islamic Republic to demonstrate sincerity in negotiations and give up its enrichment activities, the White House will have to begin serious consideration of the option of a U.S.-led military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities," said a report issued last week by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank that advocates a tough line against Iran.

Iran vowed to come up with the means to protect itself from any attack after complaining that Russia refuses to deliver the sophisticated S-300 air defense systems it promised.

The Iranian military exercise will mobilize rapid-reaction army and air defense units and test antiaircraft and radar capabilities over 230,000 square miles in various parts of the country, the hard-line Fars news agency said. Al-Alam, Iran's state-owned Arabic-language news channel, said the drills would mimic an Iranian response to airstrikes.

U.S. and Israeli military experts have also proposed the possibility of longer-range ballistic missile strikes against Iran's nuclear sites. Iranians say such a move would be met by an immediate response.

"If the enemy tries its luck and fires a missile into Iran, our ballistic missiles would zero in on Tel Aviv before the dust settles on the attack," said Mojtaba Zolnour, the representative of supreme leader Ali Khamenei to the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In addition to its nuclear program, Iran has taken heat for its human rights record. A United Nations committee recently voted to condemn Iran for its treatment of protesters after the disputed election.

Iranian diplomats have rejected those accusations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast chided the U.S. for condemning Iran, denying the allegations and pointing to alleged abuses of suspects at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the CIA's widely condemned program of abducting terrorism suspects.

Across Iran, dozens of people have been killed in the post-election unrest and hundreds arrested. More than 80 have been sentenced to prison and five condemned to death in connection with the protests.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president accused of trying to undermine the government, was released Sunday on $700,000 bail after being sentenced to six years in prison, Iranian news agencies reported. The reformist politician, who backed Mousavi in the elections, had appeared gaunt and haggard in a televised trial in August that was widely criticized as a sham by legal and rights experts.

daragahi@latimes.com

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