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Davos panel sees huge Iranian response to attack

A diverse panel of decision-makers and experts from the United States, Europe and the Middle East found common ground on just one thing when it comes to dealing with the Iranian nuclear program Friday: A military strike could well spark a devastating counterattack.

In the debate at the World Economic Forum, former top U.S. diplomat Richard Haass said there were no good options should diplomacy fail, but stood apart from the others in advocating force as a viable option. He sparred repeatedly with Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, who urged the United States to instead pressure Israel to quit its own reported nuclear weapons as a way of coaxing Iran to drop its suspected weapons program as well.

Haass replied that there was no time for this because of the speed of Iran's program — and rejected the assertion by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan that the program might be civilian, as Tehran has repeatedly claimed.

The Davos panel thus reflected the basic disagreement that divides world powers and bedevils diplomatic efforts: All seem to oppose Iran producing a nuclear weapon, but there are disagreements over whether to believe its protestations. And down the road lies the open question of whether war is worse than acquiesence.

Iran "is not interested in any serious way to produce electricity," said Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential U.S. think tank. "Let's not kid ourselves: This is about a sustained Iranian commitment to either develop nuclear weapons or get 90 percent of the way there" — perhaps sufficing with a status as "a 'threshold nuclear weapons state' in the belief that they could derive most of the benefits (without) incurring most of the costs."

Most of the other panelists at the debate hosted by the Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel stressed that diplomacy should be the focus of current efforts.

"We should use every single opportunity to reach our goal on the diplomatic path," said German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

Babacan argued that "there is a huge misunderstanding between the Western world and some in the (Middle East) and Iran. ... Marginalizing Iran more and more, or cornering them more and more ... is not going to give any kind of (solution)."

"The Iranians see diplomacy as a tactic to buy time," Haass countered. "I don't think it's going to work." Although he advocates tougher sanctions as a tactic, Haass said he feared an ultimate choice between two bad options: accepting a nuclear-armed Iran — or using military force to set back the Iranian program however possible, despite the risk of only partial success.

"I do believe that force is a serious option," he said, arguing that a nuclear Iran would place this region on a knife's edge. It would take the most dangerous, unstable part of the world and place it on steroids. This has tremendous consequences which we should not underestimate."

Al-Faisal, who served as an ambassador to the U.S. and is an ex-intelligence service director, responded to a question about whether a push for democracy across the Middle East might be more worrisome than a nuclear-armed Iran.

"I don't know — in Saudi Arabia we have neither nuclear weapons nor democracy," he said.

The panelists were aghast at the prospect of a stricken Iran, bent on revenge.

Khalid Al Bu-Ainnain, a former top Gulf military official, said Iran would "attack Israelis and U.S. forces in the Gulf" and the Gulf states might be drawn in as well.

Turki, a former Saudi intelligence chief who is a brother of Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, said that "Iran will strike back wherever it can, throughout the globe. My country and other countries — all countries — will be in the firing line. Iran has assets all over the world that it can use."

Guttenberg said Europe may get drawn in: "The (Middle East) is on fire and then ... we will have European discussions on being involved, yes or no. This is a sheer disaster. ... Let's try to avoid it diplomatically."

Not to be outdone, Haass added that Iran might interfere with the flow of oil as well.

Haass said that he took part in past U.S. deliberations on what to do about North Korea's nuclear program, and that force was discussed then also. With North Korea and Pakistan now both possessing nuclear weapons, his conclusion is that the world has been too lax: "If there were (ever) a mix of terrorism and nuclear materials, that dangerous mixture is more likely to come from Pakistan in our lifetime than anywhere else."

"A nightmare scenario," sighed Turki, emphatically agreeing with his American co-panelist at last.