Are Iran’s leaders rational actors? This question matters when justifying any decision by Israel to preempt Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. An Iranian regime seen as driven to destroy the Jewish state has to be dealt with differently than one whose objectives are mediated by calculations of costs and benefits. Deterrents that would be normally expected to restrain a state would not work with an irrational Iran. But if the Islamic republic, for all its bluster, in fact carefully weighs its policies and values regime survival, then threats alone could succeed in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions—and presumably this Iran would allot high priority to avoiding armed attack on its homeland.
Playing the Victim
But could the same rationally thinking Iranian leadership instead be welcoming a military strike on the nation’s soil? Iran’s more provocative statements and actions in recent months offer strong evidence that some influential policy makers see an attack on the country’s nuclear assets by Israel or the United States as promising rich dividends. They would like nothing more than the opportunity it offers to shed the country’s present international-pariah status and assume the mantle of a victim nation.
Massive air attacks against nuclear sites across the country can be counted on to kill or injure hundreds of civilians. Should there be a release of radioactivity that threatens many more deaths, international sympathy for Iran would increase dramatically. Iran’s leaders can look forward to angry demonstrations erupting across the Muslim world. Popular participation would predictably be more massive and potentially violent in this season of the Arab Awakening. The Tehran regime also could enjoy watching political protests fueled by exploding oil prices breaking out across Europe. The hard fight for economic sanctions against Iran would, in all probability, fall apart. UN resolutions of condemnation would certainly be expected to follow, votes where the United States could very well be left standing virtually alone in rationalizing the bombings. Even were it only Israeli planes that carried out the raids, Washington and Tel Aviv would be lumped together as aggressors.
Iran’s leaders well understand that certain governing elites, especially among the Gulf countries, would be pleased to see a preemptive attack that dealt Iran’s nuclear ambitions a setback. Yet an Israeli attack offers an opportunity to put Iran’s regional rivals on the defense. Were these Arab leaders, some with restive populations, to fail to join the chorus decrying the strike on Iran, they would risk alienating their own citizens. After an attack, the continued presence of American military bases in the Gulf could become untenable.
Other regional windfalls can be anticipated by Iran. Already inflamed anti-American public sentiment in Afghanistan and Pakistan undoubtedly would be further stoked by the bombing of Iran. Anxious to have American troops out of its backyard, Iran could count on pressures from all directions for an accelerated U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. Fears of a negotiated strategic agreement between Washington and the Karzai government allowing a residual presence of foreign forces would disappear. Opportunities for Iran to expand its already extensive political and economic influence over its neighbor would certainly improve. In Pakistan, with conspiracies about nefarious joint American and Israeli designs already a staple of popular opinion, Iran could take pleasure in witnessing a further blow to Pakistan’s relations with the United States and conceivably a genuine divorce.
This international political bonanza would be more than matched by an appealing domestic payoff. Notwithstanding the disdain that millions of Iranians have for their Islamic government, the country’s fiercely nationalistic public can be counted on to rally behind its leaders to the country’s defense. An attack on the homeland could set back chances for the revival of the reformist Green Movement for at least a decade. Even the reformers have been solidly in favor of Iran retaining its nuclear program. Who now at home or abroad would dare question the regime’s argument if it decides to build a bomb?
Iran Will Not Pay
And the price to pay for all this good fortune would be minimal. For all that Israel’s military operation could hope to accomplish, it would at best delay Iran’s eventual building of a nuclear arsenal by a few years. Iran would also have the pleasure of knowing that its elaborate construction program to protect its nuclear assets had given them a high degree of invulnerability. Destruction of any of attacking planes could be hailed as a victory against the aggressor.
A rational Iran is likely to refrain from openly retaliating against Israel. Iran’s leaders can be expected to forgo any immediate payback in favor of cashing in on their accrued political bounty. Undertaking a direct military response might invite a more general war, drawing in the United States and risking Iran’s entire military infrastructure. It would also detract from the country’s portrayal of itself as the aggrieved party.
But a measured reaction to an Israeli attack would not preclude any violent response. Iran might encourage Hezbollah and Hamas to act as surrogates and launch rockets against Israel, or it might increase the clandestine stream of weapons it provides to the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, many would applaud the Tehran regime for showing restraint. For Iran, a Western-led attack could be a gift that keeps on giving.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is a former intelligence analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State and a current scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute.