Does Iran Want to Be Hit (First)?
By Dulio Demarzios
Ph.D. in Economics
May 8, 2006
©Dulio Demarzios, 2006. All rights reserved.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gained the world's attention by making bold remarks about Israel, Jews, and Iran’s supremacy. It reminds some of us of Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf---Saddam Hussein's last Minister of Information. However, it also reminds us of Adolf Hitler's explicit and announced intention to slaughter Jews. This last association has fostered a huge debate about the real nuclear capability of Iran and the exact timing of their nuclear development. This debate has centered on determining the right time to hit Iran's nuclear capabilities, to either eliminate them or damage them significantly to slow its path to the nuclear club.
Focusing on Iran's technical advances is, at best, only part of a comprehensive approach to deal with its nuclear ambitions---“at best” because of the apparent lack of information about Iran's real technical advances. A comprehensive approach needs to extend the analysis to Iran's underlying incentives regarding both, attacking Israel and being attacked by Israel or the US. In this essay I expand on three reasons why it would not be in Iran’s benefit to strike Israel without any previous attack on its soil, and on three reasons why it would be in Iran’s benefit to be attacked first.
A review of Iran’s underlying motivations, suggests that Ahmadinejad, with his actions and speeches, is not necessarily testing the ground for a possible attack to Israel. As some commentators have noted, this rhetoric against the US and Israel could be a way to ensure Arab support against attacking him, rather than a real intention to attack first. However, a question that arises is why Ahmadinejad is giving these speeches if by doing so he is precisely increasing US and Israeli’s eagerness to attack him. This seems to be a delicate balance to play with, especially if we consider that during recent decades the US has not shown real intentions to attack Iran when Iran’s regimes have behave noiselessly.
One option is that Ahmadinejad is willing to play with this delicate balance. Another possibility is that with his actions and speeches, Ahmadinejad could be intentionally forcing the West to hit Iran with no real intentions of striking first (or even ever striking). If this is the case, then the military actions against Iran that have been proposed in the current debate---a massive and orchestrated air strike campaign---could be playing in favor of Iran's plot rather than against it. This does not necessarily mean that no action, other than diplomacy, should be taken to avoid Iran from joining the nuclear club. However, it suggests that any action should be based on a more comprehensive approach than only centering on Iran's nuclear technical advances, and it should not assume that a massive air attack on Iran would necessary harm the regime.
Does Iran want to strike Israel without provocation? There are three reasons why the answer could be no. First, if Iran is really considering striking first, and not just bluffing about it, then its attitude of announcing its intentions publicly is inconsistent---it has not said explicitly that it will strike Israel, but it seems obvious from Iran’s president speeches. These speeches make Iran lose the surprise factor, they help Israel to be more prepared, and they damage Iran’s effort to obtain the necessary inputs in the black market by inviting greater international scrutiny.
Second, any unprovoked Iranian attack on Israel would leave Israel hands-free to use all its military capabilities against Iran. This would most likely destabilize Iran’s current government, if not its whole society.
Third, any successful nuclear attack on Israel will most likely affect the more than one million Israeli Muslim Arabs, the more than three million Muslim Arabs living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and millions of Muslim Arabs living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. A nuclear attack has an immediate effect on the surroundings of the impact area---death of part of the population and physical destruction of the infrastructure---and a medium-term effect by increasing the radiation levels to which populations living nearby are exposed. The exact meaning of “surroundings” and “near by” depend on the magnitude of the explosion, the level of radiation contained in the bomb, and climate characteristics such as wind direction and strength. However, Jews and Muslim Arabs live in proximity, which suggests that both populations could suffer similar medium-term effects. For example, Tel-Aviv (2.5 million inhabitants in metropolitan area, mostly Jews) is less than 25 miles from Gaza City (469,000 inhabitants in governorate) and from Hebron (505,000), while Jerusalem (705,000 inhabitants in the city, half Arab) is less than 9 miles from Ramallah (270,000), Bethlehem (169,000), and Jericho (41,000).
Most of Iran’s nuclear marketing campaign, especially within the Arab world, is linked to the Palestinian cause and its relationship with Israel. Therefore, the idea that for the Arab World to get rid of Israel it has to accept getting rid of massive populations of Palestinians as well, would be hard to sell to the Muslim world. Plus, the potential negative effects of a nuclear attack on Israel’s soil on other Arab countries, with the panic that it will immediately create in their populations, as well as the risk of making Jerusalem (Al-Aqsa mosque) radioactive, make it even harder for Iran to strike Israel first. It could cause Iran’s leaders to loose their political power and acceptance in the region.
Perhaps Iran could develop a nuclear technology such that the ratio of Jews to Muslim Arab victims is high enough that it can be accepted by the Arab World. I doubt that Iran has the technical capabilities for implementing such fine-tuning, if it exists. However, this possibility is something worth exploring.
Does Iran want to be hit? There are three reasons why the answer could be yes. First, an attack on Iran’s soil would give Ahmadinejad’s government more political power and would ease political pressure in the domestic front. Nationalism would arise and Ahmadinejad is in a good position to capitalize on it. This would strengthen his political power vis-à-vis other Iranian leaders---for example, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the Supreme Leader) constitutionally holds the final word on many of Iran’s political decisions---and would help him to further repress local dissidents. It is known that the current government in Iran is creating significant antibodies in the general population, so less political restriction to repress dissidents would help Ahmadinejad’s regime significantly (e.g.: Ahmadinejad’s political allies and comrades are replacing many less politicized and more technocratic civil servants). Creating an external conflict has historically been a handy policy for many governments and rulers with internal political problems and Ahmadinejad does not seem to escape this trend.
Second, Ahmadinejad’s support as a Muslim leader in the Muslim World would be fostered with a massive and orchestrated American attack on Iran---even more with an Israeli attack. This is a very important point to consider. The political-institutional history of the Muslim world is characterized by political and military competition within Muslim leaders to become heads of “the supreme sovereign office of the Muslim World” (Bernard Lewis), the caliphate. This structure dominated Muslim politics since the 7th century, only to be replaced by the modern concept of states during the first half of the 20th century. The political instability in most of the Muslim modern states suggests that the institution of the caliphate has not been definitively abandoned---Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein are good example of these political dynamics.
Ahmadinejad has charisma, monetary and military resources, and a sound political network across the region (Hezbolla, Siria, Hamas, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood), which makes him a good candidate for the post of caliph. An attack on Iran would rally support on Iran, in particular on Ahmadinejad, while at the same time it would strengthen the popular support of their allies in the region. Furthermore, the political agenda of these political groups is centered on the unity of Islam as a religion and as a culture rather than on the respect of modern borders.
Therefore, the analysis of Iran’s nuclear ambitions should not rule out the possibility that Ahmadinejad’s final intentions are to create a supra-regime with, for example, four semi-autonomous provinces: Great Persia (including what today is Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian Gulf countries), Great Syria (Lebanon and Syria), Palestine (Israel, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank) and Egypt, with Great Persia as its head. In this scenario, an attack from the US or from Israel could become an instrument for Ahmadinejad to strengthen his leadership in the region.
Third, an attack on Iran would give Ahmadinejad more leeway to strike Israel, scoring political gains from a conventional strike (in a similar fashion to Saddam Hussein’s attack on Israel during the First Gulf War). In any case, Iran’s response-strike would not necessarily be viewed in the Muslim World as a battle within the Israeli-Palestinian war, but as a battle within the Arab-West war. This could further rally the Arab population support to Ahmadinejad’s side, creating a virtuous cycle from his point of view.
There is the question of whether a massive air strike over Iran could damage the regime to the point of making it incapable of capitalizing on the strike itself. Only a huge and really damaging air attack on Iran will destabilize the current regime. The US or Israel does not seem to have the political leverage to carry out such a strike without any previous Iranian military action. Also, it is expected that the leaders of Iran would be protected in safe bunkers and that would survive the eventual attack. The same should be true for the more dangerous weapons in Iran’s arsenal. Even if the strike would damage Iran’s arsenal significantly, it would not prevent Ahmadinejad from capitalizing the political gains and from striking Israel with conventional weapons to further gain from the virtuous cycle mentioned before.
Is it a comprehensive approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions to let it do as it wishes? A nuclear Iran will sooner or later destabilize the Persian Gulf region with the negative consequences that many people have already outlined. Moreover, it would be very dangerous to let a nuclear Iran act behind the scenes by supplying nuclear material to terrorist-militias networks. However, a comprehensive approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions should not merely focus on Iran’s nuclear technical advances to determine how and when it is best to destroy them.
In sum, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be misleading the US and Israel with a nuclear-hook and intentionally provoke an attack on Iran’s soil. On the one hand, he seem to be in a good position to profit from an eventual massive and orchestrated air attack on Iran of the type that has been suggested in the public debate. Furthermore, his speeches and actions are attracting “Western hostility” towards his regime, and possibly a massive air attack on Iran’s soil. On the other hand, he does not seem to be in a good position to make the first move attacking US interests and/or Israel without previous provocation.
It is hard to asses exactly how likely is that Ahmadinejad is consciously forcing an attack on Iran’s soil. However, it does not seem to be an unrealistic scenario. Any action against Ahmadinejad’s regime should seriously account for this possibility and for the benefits that could accrue to Iran if attacked---hopefully undermining Ahmadinejad’s current strategic and political advantages beyond its nuclear stance.
*I would like to thank Ami Isseroff and Joseph M. Hochstein for very helpful suggestions and comments.