How will the Iranians respond to an Israeli strike against their nuclear infrastructure? This matters greatly, affecting not just Jerusalem’s decision but also how hard other states work to impede such a strike.
Interestingly, both of the two prior Israeli strikes against enemy states building nuclear weapons, Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, prompted no retaliation. This does not mean the Iranians will follow suit, but it does suggest that the indignity of having one’s nuclear ambitions crushed by an aerial bombing does not inevitably lead to violent response.
Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have helpfully provided guidance to possible Iranian actions in “Beyond Worst-Case Analysis: Iran’s Likely Responses to an Israeli Preventive Strike.”
They note that analysts have a bias to conjure best-case assessments for a policy of deterrence and containment (some commentators go so far as to welcome an Iranian nuclear capability) while portraying the effect of a strike as the worst case, expecting Tehran to “use all means at its disposal to retaliate, including missile attacks, terrorism in the region and beyond, and closure of the Strait of Hormuz.”
Mr. Eisenstadt and Mr. Knights, in contrast, argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s history since 1979 suggests “a more measured and less apocalyptic - if still sobering - assessment of the likely aftermath of a preventive strike.” In particular, they anticipate that three main goals likely would guide Tehran’s response to an Israeli strike: an insistence on reciprocity, a caution not to overexpand the conflict, and a wish to deter further Israeli (or American) strikes. With these guidelines in place, Mr. Eisenstadt and Mr. Knights consider seven possible actions:
c Missile strikes on Israel: A few missiles from Iran would get through Israeli defenses, leading to casualties likely in the low hundreds. Missiles from Hezbollah probably would be limited because of domestic Lebanese considerations. Likewise, Hamas might opt out of fighting for its own reasons. Also, the Syrian government is not likely to make war with Israel while battling for its life against an ever-stronger opposition army. Overall, missile attacks are unlikely to be devastating, given the alternative of the mullahs controlling nuclear weapons.
Terrorist attacks on Israeli, Jewish and U.S. targets: likely but also not devastating.
Attacks on Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan: very likely, especially via proxies, but limited in scope.
Kidnapping of U.S. citizens, especially in Iraq: as in the 1980s in Lebanon, a potentially useful tactic.
Clashes with the U.S. Navy: likely but with limited effectiveness, given the balance of power.
Missile or terrorist attacks on neighboring states: Missile strikes are unlikely (Tehran does not need more enemies) but terrorism is likely.
Closing the Strait of Hormuz: not just difficult to achieve but also very damaging to Iranian interests, so unlikely. But covert mining is likely.
These dangers are unpleasant but not cataclysmic, and manageable but not devastating. The mullahs face various limits on their ability to retaliate, including their military weakness and their need not to alienate more of the world.
The authors also consider three potential consequences 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 but never does; some unrest among the Shia of the Persian Gulf will be counterbalanced by the many Arabs quietly cheering the Israelis. As for Iran leaving the Nuclear Non-proliferation 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.
In all, Mr. Eisenstadt and Mr. 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, it would not be the apocalyptic event some foresee.”
This convincing analysis confirms that the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons far exceeds the danger of eliminating those weapons before they come into existence.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum and the Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.