Iran's Master Plan to Retaliate If Israel Strikes

"The name of the game for Iran is to maximize the damage on Israeli and U.S. interests without provoking a conventional military assault."

Ask U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry why the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is so important to the foreign policy interests of the United States and its allies, he would likely tell you that the pact averts the possibility of yet another U.S.-led confrontation in the Middle East.

Whether you like all of the agreement’s provisions or not, Kerry has hit that message home as he makes the rounds on television, classified briefings, and testimony in front of Congress: the JCPOA, he argues, is the only lever that the international community has to prevent the Iranians from assembling a nuclear weapons capability over the next 15 years. Anything other than a negotiated settlement, in the administration’s mind, will be a stepping-stone to a war with dramatic repercussions.

And what about the prospects of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities? That would be a mistake of unimaginable proportions, according to Secretary Kerry. Asked exactly this question by NBC’s Matt Lauer recently on the Today Show, Kerry was blunt in his warnings. An Israeli military operation on Tehran’s program “would be an enormous mistake,” Kerry said, “a huge mistake with grave consequences for Israel and for the region.”

But how much of a mistake would the military option be? How would Iran respond in the event of Israeli airstrikes on Tehran’s nuclear enrichment and research facilities? Would Iranian retaliation really be that devastating to the United States and its allies?

1.  Use Diplomatic Channels at the United Nations

For understandable reasons, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu genuinely believes that the Islamic Republic of Iran is run by a collection of unreasonable, unconstrained, irrational men who are too deceptive and/or crazy to deal with. Yet if past history is any guide, the first response from the Iranian Government is likely to be a full-court press at the United Nations against Israel and a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council that Israel’s aggression is a violation of their national sovereignty and a direct infringement of Article 2 in the United Nations Charter.

Using diplomatic channels would be an especially appealing option for President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—both of whom have devoted their tenure to improving Tehran’s image in the eyes of the world.

A formal Iranian complaint would be dead-on-arrival once it hits the desk of the Security Council, but it would nonetheless serve its intended purpose: demonstrate to the developing world (Russia and China in particular) that the Iranian Government is a responsible power whose sovereignty was targeted by the aggressive actions of another state without sufficient cause. The objective, therefore, is not to actually pass a resolution in favor of Iran, but rather to embarrass Israel and depict it as a belligerent to a wide swath of the global community.

2.  Redoubling support to its proxies

According to a 2013 profile in The New Yorker on Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp-Quds Force, Iran contributed $100 million to Lebanese Hezbollah every year from 2000-2006. Hundreds of millions of additional dollars have been given to the organization since that time — a consistent pool of resources that has permitted Hezbollah to stockpile a conservative estimate of 50,000 missiles in southern Lebanon in preparation for another war with Israel. Tens of millions more have been transferred to Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades since the two began a reconciliation after a falling out over support for the Assad regime. “Apart from using Iranian aid to rebuild the [Hamas] tunnel network,” writes Con Coughlin of the Telegraph, “the Palestinian brigades are also replenishing their depleted stocks of medium-range missiles…”

Because Iran doesn’t share a land border with Israel, you can expect Tehran to extend its material and arms support to both of these organizations after an Israeli air campaign against its nuclear program (Iran would have more resources to do so, given the sanctions relief that it is receiving for implementing the JCPOA). Through improved technology and successful defense research with the United States, Israel has been able to render many of Hamas’ rockets ineffective. Yet even with Israel’s sophisticated anti-missile defense system, it would be difficult to counteract a coordinated attack from Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the west simultaneously. Iran, meanwhile, would still be afforded some small degree of plausible deniability.

3.  You’re welcome, Al-Qaeda

It may seem like an incredibly odd thing for Iran to do given its Shia composition, but the country has tacitly worked with Al-Qaeda in the past—a Sunni jihadist group that has killed thousands of people just because they happened to be worshipping in the wrong way. The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned numerous Al-Qaeda commanders for using Iran as a staging ground to transfer fighters and money to and from South Asia and the Middle East. And the ayatollahs in Tehran have largely looked the other way when Al-Qaeda is working to target the United States or American interests.