How will Iranians respond to an Israeli strike against their nuclear infrastructure? The answers to this prediction matters greatly, affecting not just Jerusalem's decision but also how much other states work to impede an Israeli strike.
Analysts generally offer up best-case predictions for policies of deterrence and containment (some commentators even go so far as to welcome an Iranian nuclear capability) while forecasting worst-case results from a strike. They foresee Tehran doing everything possible to retaliate, such as kidnapping, terrorism, missile attacks, naval combat, and closing the Strait of Hormuz. These predictions ignore two facts: neither of Israel's prior strikes against enemy states building nuclear weapons, Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, prompted retaliation; and a review the Islamic Republic of Iran's history since 1979 points to "a more measured and less apocalyptic—if still sobering—assessment of the likely aftermath of a preventive strike."
The authors, Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy.
The mullahs, in other words, face serious limits on their ability to retaliate, including military weakness and a pressing need not to make yet more external enemies. With these guidelines in place, Eisenstadt and Knights consider eight possible Iranian actions, each of which must be assessed while keeping in mind the alternative – namely, apocalyptic Islamists controlling nuclear weapons:
- Terrorist attacks on Israeli, Jewish, and U.S. targets. Likely but causing limited destruction.
- Kidnapping U.S. citizens, especially in Iraq. Likely, but limited in impact, as in the 1980s in Lebanon.
- Attacks on Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Very likely, especially via proxies, but causing limited destruction.
- Missile strikes on Israel. Likely: a few missiles from Iran get through Israeli defenses, leading to casualties likely in the low hundreds; missiles from Hezbollah limited in number due to domestic Lebanese considerations. Unlikely: Hamas getting involved, having distanced itself from Tehran; the Syrian government, which is battling for its life against an ever-stronger opposition army and possibly also the Turkish armed forces. Overall, missile attacks are unlikely to do devastating damage.
- Attacks on neighboring states. Likely: terrorism, because deniable. Unlikely: missile strikes, for Tehran does not want to make more enemies.
- Clashes with the U.S. Navy. Likely: but, given the balance of power, does limited damage.
- Covertly mining the Strait of Hormuz. Likely, causing a run-up in energy prices.
- Attempted closing the Strait of Hormuz. Unlikely: difficult to achieve and potentially too damaging to Iranian interests, for the country needs that same strait for commerce.
The authors also consider three potential side effects of an Israeli strike. Yes, Iranians might rally to their government in the immediate aftermath of a strike, but in the longer term Tehran "could be criticized for handling the nuclear dossier in a way that led to military confrontation." The so-called Arab street is perpetually predicted to rise up in response to outside military attack, but it never does; likely unrest among the Shi'a of the Persian Gulf would be counterbalanced by the many Arabs quietly cheering the Israelis. As for leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and starting an overt crash nuclear weapons program, while "a very real possibility," the more the Iranians retaliate, the harder they will find it to obtain the parts for such a program.
The USS Enterprise – how serious is the Iranian threat against it?
In all, these dangers are unpleasant but not cataclysmic, manageable not devastating. Eisenstadt and Knights expect a short phase of high-intensity Iranian response, to be followed by a "protracted low intensity conflict that could last for months or even years" – much as already exists between Iran and Israel. An Israeli preventive strike, they conclude, while a "high-risk endeavor carrying a potential for escalation in the Levant or the Gulf, … would not be the apocalyptic event some foresee."
This analysis makes a convincing case that the danger of nuclear weapons falling into Iranian hands far exceeds the danger of a military strike to prevent that from happening.
Illustration by Linas Garsys for The Washington Times.
Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2012 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
Oct. 23, 2012 update: Ehud Eilam of Israel Defense magazine considers whether Hizballah and Hamas would "join Iran in a war against Israel" and is skeptical:
There is a prevalent view that in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran, Tehran's proxies in Lebanon and Gaza – Hizballah and Hamas – would join in retaliation against Israel. A more likely scenario, however, is that those groups' participation will be limited at best. Hizballah must consider its crumbling support from the weakened Assad regime, as well as popular opposition within Lebanon to its role in military conflict with Israel. Hamas' recent feud with Iran over the group's lack of support for the Assad regime could render it reluctant to assist in the fight against Israel.
Nov. 4, 2012 update: Israel's Institute for National Security Studies held a war game premised on a successful attack taking place five days from now and looking at the two days following such an attack. The results?
Overall, there are two opposing assessments of the implications of an Israeli attack. One anticipates the outbreak of World War III, while the other envisions containment and restraint, and presumes that in practice, Iran's capabilities to ignite the Middle East are limited. The war game that took place developed in the direction of containment and restraint, with the actors motivated mainly by rational considerations and critical interests.
Oct. 1, 2013 update: Amos Yadlin and Avner Golov of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies ask "If Attacked, How Would Iran Respond?" in the current issue of Strategic Assessment. In reply, they challenge the commonly held Western view of increased sectarian conﬂict and regional war and instead conclude that Iranian retaliation will be limited in impact.