Will Iran blink first?

In a recent article, Benny Morris argues that a pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear program may well be imminent. Both the level of enrichment and the ability to effectively dissimulate facilities underground are participating in limiting the window of opportunity within which Israel and the United States would be able to carry out a successful mission aiming at destroying or restraining Iran’s illegal nuclear program. Along with Iran’s technical advances, a further issue is weighting on Israel’s decision making process. A highly probable reelection of President Obama in November 2013 is likely to diffuse the President’s aggressive rhetoric as he will no longer need to counter Republicans’ accusations of being weak on the Iran case.

In the present chess game between Israel and Iran, the United States appear for the moment as determined to use all assets, except a strike in itself, to deter Iran from advancing on its nuclear program. Stronger sanctions limiting Iran’s ability to sell its oil along with increased military presence in the Arabian Sea represent the current escalation of the US involvement in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Nevertheless these actions do not appear to weaken the Islamic Republic’s will to pursue its highly developed enrichment plan in highly secretive and protected facilities. On the other hand, Teheran has reinforced its aggressive stance. On June 26th, Iran’s Vice President, Mr. Rahimi, once again highlighted his government’s arrogant and obtuse anti-Semitic positions. The beginning of the month of July has been especially busy for the Iranians as they claim to have tested Shahab 1, Shahab 2 and Shahab 3 ballistic missiles able to hit US positions in the Gulf and Israel. As part of the Prophet 7 war games, Iran also used Khalid Farzh anti-ship missiles. If it is true that they did not test their most advanced systems, such as the saijl ballistic missile, they did however concentrate on providing a good picture of what an attack on Israeli and US airbases and battleships may look like. The official declarations indicate that these training exercises were meant as an answer to international threats. They however raise a serious question concerning Iran’s offensive capabilities. In addition to that, on July 3rd more than 120 members of the Iranian Parliament signed an official petition to enforce the military blocus of the Hormuz Strait.

The question is if these moves are only business as usual in the region or if they highlight a deeper threat. In fact, anti-Semitic declarations by a member of the Iranian government and military exercises on the eve of major international events do not appear as anything new. Nevertheless it is necessary to ask if Israel and the United States, in this case primarily the 6thFleet and their Arab regional partners, would be ready for an offensive action taken by the Iranian regime.

In the last couple of years much has been written about a possible pre-emptive strike against Teheran’s illegal nuclear program but the current situation needs to raise the inverse question. What if a military capable Iran, with a beefed up offensive apparatus and under enormous international pressure, would take the first step and lead an attack against Israel and the United States?

In a position of relative weakness, and after almost three decades of research to acquire nuclear weapons, this may represent a major strategic blunder. It nevertheless must be taken into consideration as there are major similarities with the 1941 pre-Pearl Harbor period. Robert W. Merry argued on the National Interest, that President Obama’s policy is similar to the one adopted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940’s. A negative economic situation, along with the perception that a surprise attack may alter the balance of power in the region may push the Iranian government to adopt a stance it hasn’t had in the first three decades of its existence. In fact, since 1979, the Iranians have been keen to maintain a conventional defensive posture along with unconventional and asymmetric offensive capabilities. The bloodbaths that occurred during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and the lesson learned by analyzing the Iraqi conventional forces’ catastrophic defeats against the US armed forces have made the Iranians wary of openly taking the offensive. Terrorism, asymmetric engagements and proxy warfare are the only fields within which Iran maintains a relative comparative advantage. An increase in economic hardships leading to further obstacles to Iranian oil deals along with a possible erosion of the Iranian public support for the nuclear program are likely to push Teheran into a corner. For this, three options are on the table: the Iranian government persists in its current plan and thus risks further sanctions; it gives up (never going to happen) or it tries its luck and take action to protect what it perceives as its vital interests (the oil trade is among them).

It is this last option that in the next couple of months will gain in importance. In fact, as the Iranian Armed forces chief of staff – General Hassan Firouzbadi – recently stated, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz or any other offensive action will happen only if Iran’s nation interest are threatened. It is needless to say that a situation where the first to blink may detonate a regional conflict, the Iranian leadership may feel it is coming up short on time. Certainly Teheran’s military nuclear program benefits from these long periods of uncertainties, yet the population and the other branches of the armed forces are struggling to maintain decent standard of living (with an inflation closing on 30%) and combat readiness.

If in December 1941, the imperial Japanese forces were able to pull off a daring surprise attack against unprepared US forces, in 2012, Iran wouldn’t have to cross the world largest ocean in order to carry out its surprise attack. Its ballistic missiles could hit targets in the Arabian Sea or Israel within less than 15 minutes. Strategically, the Iranian armed forces along with their proxies are able to effectively clamp down the US navy in the Gulf and via its Lebanese allies limit Israel’s capacities to take initiative. The response to such an action would either imply a prolonged air campaign or a long lasting ground war, two situations which the US are trying to avoid as President Obama will maintain is ‘Asia Pivot’ policy.

An Iranian surprise attack would be highly counterproductive for the Islamic Republic as it would definitively put it on the wrong side of international history. As a recent report by the Washington Institute highlights, even in the worst case scenario, an Iranian barrage on Israel would only have limited effect and would not tip the overall balance of power. Iran would also not be able to fully count on Hezbollah as the Party of God is now busy to try to maintain power over a crippled Lebanon. In addition to that, Iran would be fighting since the first shot a three front war against Israel, the US and the Gulf monarchies which would need to answer to this blatant aggression.

Following these considerations, it is highly unlikely that Iran will walk toward a certain defeat by taking the risk of a surprise attack. As pressure mounts, in the coming months it is plausible that Teheran will further hide its nuclear facilities and maintain an offensive stance short of starting a war. It is thus in Israel’s and US interest to participate in increasing economic, financial and commercial sanctions against Iran to a point to which it can no longer maintain combat readiness and further beef up their respective military presence in the region to be prepared for all scenarios. An impoverished and military inferior Iran, even if nuclear armed, would not be able to fully tip the regional strategic balance, thus proving the irrationality of its long lasting project. In such an event, Israel and the US will have to enter into a new and more flexible phase of deterrence which would put Iran into a strategic checkmate.

About the Author
Riccardo Dugulin is an independant international affairs analyst. He holds a Master in International Security from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and has worked in leading think tanks in Washington DC, Beirut and Dubai and has held the position of security coordinator for a security assistance firm.