How will Iranians respond to an Israeli strike against their nuclear infrastructure? 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. This, despite 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.”
Those are the words of Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, who provide an excellent guide to possible scenarios in “Beyond Worst-Case Analysis: Iran’s Likely Responses to an Israeli Preventive Strike.” Their survey of Iranian behavior over the past three decades leads them to anticipate that three main principles would likely shape and limit Tehran’s response to an Israeli strike: an insistence on reciprocity, a caution not to gratuitously make enemies, and a wish to deter further Israeli (or American) strikes.
The mullahs face, 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. These guidelines in place, Eisenstadt and Knights consider eight possible Iranian actions, 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 wrecking limited destruction.
- Kidnapping U.S. citizens, especially in Iraq: Likely, useful but limited in impact, as in the 1980s in Lebanon.
- Attacks on Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan: Very likely, especially via proxies, but wrecking 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 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.