Even Admiral William Fallon, who publicly opposed a US strike on Iran before he resigned in April, dismissed Iran as a military threat. "Get serious," Adm. Fallon told Esquire in March. "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."
But that has not kept Iran from rhetorical chest-beating, with an active military manpower of 540,000 – the largest in the Middle East – dependent on some of the lowest per capita defense spending in the region. Iran "can deal fatal blows to aggressor America by unpredictable and creative tactical moves," the senior commander Brig. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid said in late May. "It is meaningless to back down before an enemy who has targeted the roots of our existence."
Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei also warned of far-reaching revenge in 2006. "The Americans should know that if they assault Iran, their interests will be harmed anywhere in the world that is possible," he said. "The Iranian nation will respond to any blow with double the intensity."
Analysts say Iran has a number of tools to make good on those threats and take pride in taking on a more powerful enemy. "This is not something they are shying away from," says Alex Vatanka, a Middle East security analyst at Jane's Information Group in Washington.