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(photo credit: IAI [file])
This is the year of the missile in the Middle East. Everyone is launching and testing missiles, and flexing their muscles in defiance of the rest of the region and the world.
Two weeks ago, it was the Iranians who put on a massive military display during the largest missile maneuver since the United Nations imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic in December. Overseen by Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi - who used the event to threaten to destroy Israel - the Iranians tested their Zalzal-1 and Fajr-5 missiles, which are also back in the hands of Hizbullah and capable of wreaking destruction as far south as Tel Aviv.
A week later, it was Syria's turn: Damascus tested the advanced Scud-D. The missile, which was detected by Israeli radar systems, reportedly flew for several hundred kilometers and landed near its target.
This week, it was Israel's turn, with the successful 15th test of the Arrow 2 missile defense system. Launched Sunday night from the IAF's Palmahim base, the Arrow intercepted a missile impersonating an Iranian Shihab-3 carrying a nuclear warhead.
While defense officials went out of their way to stress that the missile test was conducted as part of the routine development of the system, the message Israel sent to Iran and Syria was clear: You can successfully fire your missiles; we can successfully intercept them.
It is only February, and already three of the major players in the region have tested their missiles. This is just the beginning, however. Israel plans additional Arrow launches throughout the year as it continues to upgrade the defense system to stay ahead of Iran's developments to its Shihab missile series. Israel is also considering deploying additional Arrow batteries - including in the North and the South.
There is also now increased talk of exporting the Arrow to other countries, particularly South Korea, a strong ally of the US under an existential missile threat from North Korea.
THE ARROW is the pride and joy of its manufacturers at Israel Aerospace Industries. It is the only operational missile defense system in the world. Even the Americans are behind Israel and have only recently begun deployment of the Aegis ballistic missile defense destroyer. The US has also announced plans to station a missile interceptor in Poland and its accompanying radar system in the Czech Republic.
"There is a missile race in the Middle East," explained a top defense official. "It is our job to stay on top and to make sure that we develop our defenses more quickly than our enemies develop their missiles."
Developed as an answer to Saddam Hussein's Scuds - like the ones that hit during the Gulf War - the Arrow is today far more advanced than initially planned and it has the world's attention. But the fact that Israel has the defensive capabilities does not mean it is not preparing for an offensive step against Iran - one that could include a strike against its nuclear sites.
WHILE PRESIDENT George W. Bush reiterated this week that an American attack on Iran would be a "last resort," senior officials in Tel Aviv spoke with interest of the American leader's latest decision to appoint Adm. William Fallon commander of the US armed forces' Central Command based in Qatar.
While Fallon, former head of the Pacific Command, will be the supreme commander of America's war in Iraq, he will also be in charge of a military operation against Iran, if one is launched. The Israeli officials pointed to the seemingly coincidental timing of a naval officer's appointment to CENTCOM - traditionally a position for an army or Marine Corps officer - and the recent decision to send a second battle group, led by the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis, to the Persian Gulf to support the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"If Bush is planning something, he is certainly getting ready for it," was one official's description.
Dr. Eran Lerman, director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee and a former senior IDF intelligence analyst, had a similar read on the US military buildup in the region. During a conference at Tel Aviv University last week, Lerman said that the additional ships and the appointment of Fallon indicated that America was considering imposing a sea blockade on Iran, a move he said could prove to be more effective than the UN sanctions currently imposed on Teheran.
With all the missile tests and Iranian maneuvers going on, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who took up his new post as chief of General Staff on Wednesday, will not even merit a single moment of grace. He will have to oversee the increased training in the IDF, create his new General Staff and prepare for possible conflicts with Hizbullah, Syria, the Palestinians and a possible strike on Iran.
Former IAF commander David Ivry once said that the most difficult step during the preparations for Operation Opera - the successful IAF air strike on the Osirak reactor near Baghdad in 1981 - was convincing the political echelon that the IDF was capable of successfully carrying out the mission.
Ashkenazi will have to do the same. But before he attempts to persuade the politicians, he will first need - together with IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy - to convince himself that the IDF that lost in Lebanon is capable of winning in Iran.