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Them’s fightin’ words?

A study of Iranian rhetoric in context reveals an aggrandizement policy aimed at deterring those, Israel included, that threaten the regime -- but no trace of a credible military threat

Since the 2004 hardline conservative tilt, Iran has expressed its contempt for Israel with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In just eight short years, the heads of state and government have openly advocated Israeli annihilation 41 times and threatened to hasten this “inevitability” on 23 further occasions. Far from a deranged duet, 94 other prominent Iranians have added their voices to this menacing melody – with one MP even promising to “turn Tel Aviv into a blazing hell.”

Coming alongside dirty geopolitics and illicit proliferation activities, Tehran’s words have sown rather ominous seeds into the Israeli strategic calculus. Speaking in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu let things sprout:

The regime in Iran openly calls and determinedly works for our destruction. And it is feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to achieve that goal.

Absolutely convinced of this nefarious ambition, the prime minister went on to proclaim:

Those who dismiss Iran’s threats as exaggerated or mere idle posturing have learned nothing from Holocaust.

At face value, Netanyahu is correct. The annihilation rhetoric certainly bears a striking lexical resemblance to the twisted propaganda of the 1930s. Digging deeper, though, it quickly becomes apparent that this nuclear boogeyman characterization falls perilously short.

Netanyahu addresses an audience of Israelis at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Netanyahu addresses an audience of Israelis at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

First, the rhetoric-proliferation link is wholly unfounded. None of the 287 ominous-sounding statements in the extensive FARSTrend, and Xinhua databases mention, or even imply, anything about Iranian nuclear weapons, their use, or their use against Israel. In fact, the closest anyone came was the wife of an assassinated nuclear scientist, who vindictively sobbed that her husband “Mustafa’s ultimate goal was the annihilation of Israel.”

Second, Tehran has yet to unconditionally threaten violence against Tel Aviv. So far, the revolutionary regime has made 209 deterrent-based remarks, promising rather nasty things if, and only if, the Israeli bloc resorts to military action. The remaining 78 statements reference Iran’s “Zionist demise narrative,” which prophesies Israel will founder at the hands of natural forces – not Tehran or its proxies. Only once, in the wake of a particularly devastating decapitation strike, did someone officially imply that Hezbollah might be the agent of Israel’s destruction.

Third, unlike the ravings of a madman, the Iranian commentary has rational, well-defined triggers. Israeli-bloc moves, against Iran or its friends, were far and away the main culprit, prompting 186 remarks. Formal events, such as diplomatic meetings, added another 77, and Iranian defense developments took the bronze with 14. Unadulterated demagoguery, by contrast, accounted for a lowly 10. Interestingly, the “Zionist demise narrative” was only used in conjunction with the first two cues – almost as if the revolutionary regime wanted to look tough but not excessively belligerent or irrational.

Fourth, the boogeyman interpretation cannot account for Tehran’s timing. If the hardliners truly harbored sinister intentions, they would have maintained a fairly consistent rhetoric stream throughout their entire tenure. During the first 18 months, though, Iranian officials made a whopping three remarks. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly grew this meager total after his inauguration, but the commentary only properly took shape 12 months later, around the outbreak of the Israeli-Iranian cold war. Even then, the discourse volume still remained pegged to developments in the broader security situation.

Fifth, the specificity modulation within the Iranian rhetoric reflects meticulous consideration. By their nature, detail-laden threats are extremely disconcerting because they signal that the potential assailant has already considered the logistics and is ready to make good. Eager to avoid any unnecessary provocation, Tehran has by and large kept its remarks quite vague. So far, only 46 comments have included more than one pertinent particular, and aggressive posturing triggered the overwhelming majority of these. However, when it comes to statements that discuss the specifics of strategic retaliation, Israeli-bloc moves take the entire cake.

Sixth, Tehran is far more collected than Ahmadinejad’s infamous grandstanding would suggest. The cabinet-level foreign policy decision-makers clearly recognize the broader implications of their words and tend to moderate them accordingly. Unlike their overzealous subordinates, this senior stratum sagely refrains from publically entertaining notions of strategic retaliation, issuing detail-laden threats, and linking their remarks to defense developments. However, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi saw fit to make an exception in March when the war drums were fever-pitch.

Seventh, Iran maintains its ice-cold composure under pressure. Take the last 10 months for instance. Instead of simply harassing the “Zionist regime” throughout the entire ordeal, Tehran customized its rhetoric to the threat(s) at hand, initially shifting from the Israelis to the Americans during the New Year crescendo and then taking a more balanced approach only after US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed Tel Aviv’s intentions. Furthermore, the Iranians consciously curtailed their use of certain highly provocative content, such as the “Zionist demise narrative,” in order to make room for a more assertive “preemptors beware of strategic retaliation” message.

Nothing but a boogeyman facade? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)
Nothing but a boogeyman facade? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

Cutting through the nuclear boogeyman façade, these seven critiques reveal a realpolitik method behind the revolutionary regime’s supposed madness. Rising in Iraq’s ashes, Iran has spent the last decade exploiting the Persian Gulf power imbalance and undermining Israel’s traditional security hedge in the process. Petrified of indefensible pushback, the Iranians safeguard their precious gains with their only practical defense – over-the-top retaliatory reminders and painfully blatant missile drill remarks. This brazen commentary and the aptly timed annihilation/solidarity rhetoric also serve to paint Tehran as a compassionate, Islamic titan in the eyes of its bannermen, thereby ensuring their continued enthusiasm and fealty. In short, it’s all a geopolitical aggrandizement ploy – textbook behavior for an outgunned, rising realist, really.

Moving forward, Tel Aviv should revise its strategic calculus accordingly. Precarious geography certainly demands that preemption remain on the table; however, under the circumstances, the strike threshold should be pinned to a dispassionate consideration of Iranian national interests – not some misconstrued “fightin’ words.” After all, rational actors don’t go around nuking things willy-nilly. They require a clear and imminent existential threat.

About the Author
George Boone is President and Founder of Polaris Strategies, an international relations consulting firm specializing in geopolitics, demographic shifts, and anticipation