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What Iran's 'Punch' to the West Might Be

If ever there were a time for Iranian chest-thumping, it would be now. The 31st anniversary of the regime's Islamic Revolution is less than a week away, but authorities anticipate that the celebrations will be marred by a new round of antigovernment protests led by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

If ever there were a time for Iranian chest-thumping, it would benow. The 31st anniversary of the regime's Islamic Revolution is lessthan a week away, but authorities anticipatethat the celebrations will be marred by a new round of antigovernmentprotests led by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Adding fuel tothe fire, Monday brought news that senior officials from Russia hadjoined with their counterparts in the United States and France inpressing for tougher sanctions against Iran, bringing the U.N. SecurityCouncil an important step closer to implementing a sanctions program.

For their part, the leaders of the Islamic Republic are stepping uptheir rhetoric. Iran's defense minister announced on Monday that themilitary had conducted successful tests on new drones and air defenses.The same day, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tolda group of Iranian Air Force personnel that the Iranian nation will"punch the arrogance" of Western powers on Thursday, the day of theanniversary, "in a way that will leave them stunned."

Iran analysts are scrambling to figure out how the mysterious"punch" might land. For now, most are scratching their heads. Morelikely than not, they say, the whole incident consists of more huffingand puffing than real brinksmanship. “The Iranians are trouble to besure, but they’re also known to exaggerate their capabilities,especially when it comes to their military and nuclear programs," saidone U.S. counterterrorism official. "They have multiple incentives tohype the facts—to try to deter a potential attack from abroad, tostrike a better bargain in international negotiations, or to stokenationalism at home."

That squares with what Iran watchers know about the regime's capabilities at this point. The reality is that Iran isn't yet in a position to carry out a nuclear test. Attacks on foreign soil seem similarly improbable. Although Iranian leaders are famous for their blustery threats, nobody can quite believe Khamenei would risk pursuing an actual attack on Israel or a terrorist act in the West, which would both provoke more confrontation than they're worth. In line with the drone testing, it is possible that the "punch" could be some sort of longer-range missile test. Still, while cause for concern, that would hardly constitute a threat worth hyperventilating over. Even less troubling (at least in the geopolitical sense) is our colleague Maziar Bahari's assessment. "He just means that everyone will come to the street and will show how popular Iranian government is," he wrote in an e-mail.

What would be more cause for concern—and probably more to Tehran's liking—is if the provocation were to yield a Western strike, a move that could undermine the opposition movement by uniting dissidents and the regime in patriotic anger over foreign intervention. That leaves a prickly path to tread for Western officials. Monday brought newsthat the Russians were finally on board with a program of sanctions, but China is standing strong as the loneholdout on the U.N. Security Council. As Melinda Liu points out, prospects for Chinese acquiescence are not good. If they're unable to rein in Iran's top trading partner, Western leaders may have to settle on an alternative response. The danger would be choosing one that plays right into Khamenei's hand.

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