The Missiles of July

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done the impossible. He's made U.S. President George W. Bush look intelligent. Just as the United States was closing the deal with the Czech Republic to station early warning radar there to help shoot down Iranian rockets, Iran fired off a test series of missiles, including the Shahab-3, capable of hitting targets 2,000 kilometers away. Bush went from looking pre-scientific to prescient.

But then it turned out that not all the Iranian missiles were launched successfully, and at least one was the product of computer-image manipulation. One wag quipped that the best defense against Iranian missiles might be Photoshop.

Meanwhile, in a coincidence that defies all odds, the Russian supply of oil to the Czech Republic experienced mysterious technical problems.

The result is a log-jam of separate threats that makes each one harder to assess. There is the Iranian threat to Israel, Europe and the United States. There is also the Russian energy threat to the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries that depend heavily on Russia for gas and oil, as well as the recent threat to put the Czech Republic and Poland in Russia's nuclear crosshairs. Finally, there is NATO's threat to Russia as perceived by the Kremlin.

Iranian-U.S. relations are conditioned by two ticking clocks. One measures the time until Iran actually possesses a nuclear weapon -- approximately two years. The other counts the days until the November election and the inauguration of a new U.S. president in January. Iran is the only element of the axis-of-evil problem that remains unsolved.

The United States won't attack Iran, but Israel might. The Times of London on July 13 reported that Bush has already offered implicit approval for an Israeli attack.

Israel rejects the intelligence reports that Iran suspended nuclear weapons work in 2003. Israel says that Iran is still working on nuclear weapons that will threaten Israel's very existence, and Iran must therefore be denied those weapons. But does Israel possess concrete proof that Iran is still working toward nuclear weapons, or is that just a chance Israel is unwilling to take? With its prime minister facing a possible indictment and bodies coming home to Israel from the miscalculated Lebanon campaign, is Israel in any position to strike Iran?

From the very beginning, Moscow has adamantly opposed the U.S. plan to station radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. The Kremlin views that plan in the context of NATO expansion, which now essentially cordons Russia off from the Baltic to the Black Seas. "How would Washington feel if we placed interceptors in Cuba or Venezuela?" asked a source close to the Defense Ministry.

The Kremlin's response has been to threaten to target Poland and the Czech Republic with nuclear weapons. Russian officials have recently traveled to the Kaliningrad region to investigate the possibility of deploying such weapons there.

Would Russia really risk placing itself in such a hostile stance toward Europe while also further jeopardizing its reputation as a reliable energy supplier? Would the United States risk global conflict and recession by using Israeli surrogates to attack Iranian nuclear installations for reasons in which partisan politics play as much a part as strategic concerns? And how long will Iran confuse insolence with independence, creating an atmosphere of brinkmanship that may end costing it dearly?

There have been indications in recent days that the United States and Iran might begin talking. It might be the case that Israeli military exercises and the Iranian missile tests were simply signals and posturings, a prelude to negotiation. But those talks themselves may fail or just be a ruse to run out the clock on Bush. The next several months will be especially risky. A lot will be riding on accurate threat assessment and able diplomacy -- qualities that are always in short supply.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."