Will Iran preempt?

As the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program continues apace, the debate in Israel and abroad has focused almost exclusively on the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Little if anything has been said at least in public regarding the possibility that Iran would preempt a potential Israeli offensive.  

The absence of this scenario in the public discourse is apparently related to a tacit assumption that Iran has no real incentive to launch such an attack, one which will certainly trigger an all out war and might even bring the US into the mix, so long as its nuclear progress remains on track and uninterrupted.

However, an Iranian preemptive attack might be closer than initially realized. It must be recognized that in recent months Israeli leaders have been issuing increasingly dire warnings of pending action in an apparent effort to curb Iran’s nuclear progress. The most recent of these threats came on July 18, 2022 when Israel’s Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi stated that “The IDF continues to prepare vigorously for an attack on Iran…Preparing a military option against the Iranian nuclear program is a moral obligation and a national security imperative.” He added that such possible action is “at the center of preparations in the IDF and include a variety of operational plans, the allocation of many resources, the acquisition of appropriate weapons, intelligence and training.”

A few days later on July 26, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz stated in an interview that “We are able to seriously harm and delay the [Iranian] nuclear [program].”

For Iran to ignore such threats would be irrational unless its leaders assessed that Israel was only posturing and would not dare attack. Tehran might also estimate that as long as Iran avoided crossing the nuclear threshold an Israeli attack was unlikely. Lastly, the Iranians could dismiss the Israeli warnings if they believed that due to their elaborate passive and active defenses their nuclear sites would withstand an Israeli attack.

Tehran could thus opt for a “second strike posture” in effect choosing to absorb the Israeli offensive while fully expecting that its nuclear installations (and its well-hidden sizable missile force), survive intact. Iran would then be entirely justified in launching devastating counter attacks and even gain international support for its military response.

Yet, if Iran adopts a worst-case approach, which is common practice in intelligence assessments, Israel’s stern warnings might push it to embrace a first strike recourse.

Moreover, the belief that Iran will forgo the preemptive option is also based on a fallacy that an attack on Israel would be launched from Iranian territory. Such an assumption completely ignores the role Iran’s faithful proxy, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, plays in Tehran’s strategy.

Over the years Iran combined its nuclear progress with building up the terrorist organization’s long reach capabilities. It armed it with, or financed the acquisition of, tens of thousands of rockets and missiles some with the range, payload and accuracy to hit key Israeli strategic targets including the Dimona nuclear reactor in the south of the country. It also trained Hezbollah operatives in the use of the weapon systems it supplied.

By keeping these Israeli assets hostage, Iran sought to use Hezbollah as a stopgap strategic deterrent to block a possible Israeli preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities similar to the ones it carried out in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.

Still it is entirely possible, if not indeed probable, for Tehran to press Hezbollah to shift its posture from deterrence to preemption once it becomes convinced Israel was about to go on the offensive. Iran would hope Hezbollah degrades the IDF’s ability to launch an effective preemptive attack so as to make it impractical or in the words of its military chiefs a “stupid mistake.”

Notably, this scenario could still unfold even if the Iranians are decidedly off the mark in terms of Hezbollah’s actual ability to defang the IDF. The likelihood of this contingency depends primarily on Iran’s proven preference to operate through proxies coupled by new alarm over Israel’s recent threats and accelerated military preparations. Perhaps paradoxically, the lower is Iran’s estimate of its own vulnerability the higher could be its propensity to orchestrate a preemption.

In this regard the surprising and ever intensifying efforts by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, to interject himself into the Lebanese-Israeli dispute over demarcation of the maritime border could be a harbinger of a change in the organization’s strategy. After all it was only last February that Nasrallah stated, in an interview with Iran’s state TV, “We do not consider ourselves to be concerned with the technical discussions about the sea border demarcation with Israel.”

While there are several alternative explanations to the Hezbollah leader new threatening stand it cannot be ruled out that he is looking for an pretext to act while eschewing blame for dragging his country into another ruinous conflict which it can ill afford.

It would be, therefore, highly advisable for Israeli leaders to adopt US President Teddy Roosevelt’s old mantra of “speak softly and carry a big stick” instead of their current adherence to its opposite.

Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.

*A shorter version of this article appeared in

About the Author
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.
Related Topics
Related Posts

We have a new, improved comments system. To comment, simply register or sign in.