Nir Barkat, Israel’s minister of economy and industry, did not mince words.
“The Ayatollahs in Iran are not going to sleep good at night,” Barkat declared.
“We are going to make sure they pay a heavy price if, God forbid, they open the northern front” by having Hezbollah attack Israel,
The threat of an Israeli strike on Iran is real.
While Qatar finances Hamas and Turkey provides it with diplomatic support, its command-and-control lies with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Iranian budget has included open-line items for support to Palestinian movements. The Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force conducts training for Palestinians in Iran and Lebanon. IRGC commanders help with training and logistics, even if Palestinians run operations. This continuous Iranian support for Palestinian terror groups has long been the basis for the U.S. State Department’s designation of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Top Biden administration officials may argue they have seen no smoking gun to implicate Iranian involvement in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. But they ignore how Iran’s longstanding support facilitates these operations while giving the Islamic Republic plausible deniability.
If Israel were ever able to strike militarily in Iran, the Iranian regime’s major response would come via Hezbollah, which has accumulated more than 100,000 rockets and missiles, even under the watchful eye of the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon. Indeed, when the UN secretary-general complains about Israeli actions in Gaza, he might consider how the UN’s false promises after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war vaporized the UN’s credibility in Israel. If Hezbollah chooses to launch missiles in solidarity with Hamas, Israeli strategists will conclude that, since Israeli civilians have already suffered retaliation even without a strike on Iran’s nuclear program, there remains no downside to striking at Iran directly.
An Israeli attack on Iran would not be easy. Strikes on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and a Syrian plutonium plant near Deir ez-Zor in 2007 affected single targets, but the Iranian government has widely dispersed its nuclear program. Iran is also farther away from Israel, and it is four times the size of Iraq. Even if Israeli jets entered Iranian airspace with stealth, they would lose the element of surprise once they dropped their ordnance. Because Israeli pilots are not suicidal, this means they would first need to strike at Iranian airfields, command-and-control centers, and anti-aircraft batteries. All told, the Israeli Air Force would need to plan on at least 1,500 sorties.
How Would Iranians React?
I have always opposed bombing Iran. Such a campaign would delay rather than eliminate the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Even this gain would come at tremendous cost, and because Iranians are nationalistic, any overt military action by the United States or Israel against Iran would allow the Iranian regime to rally ordinary Iranians around the flag. Indeed, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime was beginning to crumble when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded with the aim to decapitate the Islamic Republic and seize the oil-rich, ethnic-Arab province of Khuzestan. Saddam’s actions preserved the regime and gave Khomeini and the nascent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps time to consolidate.
Would Iranians react to an Israeli strike any differently?
Perhaps. Saddam Hussein sought to dismantle Iran. He wanted to play the ethnic separatist card, be it with regard to Arabs in Khuzestan or by amplifying the Azeri separatism expressed in the so-called South Azerbaijan movement. This was a gift to the ayatollahs. The first rule when confronting a nationalist people who love their country is to limit attacks to the regime, never striking at the legitimacy of the country itself.
While the Iranian regime promotes the myth that the 1953 countercoup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was an assault on democracy, they ignore key factors. First, the clergy aligned with the shah against Mosaddegh’s Tudeh Party. Further, constitutionally Mosaddegh was in the wrong. Curiously, they ignore in their revisionism the World War II-era occupation of Western Iran by the United States and the United Kingdom. The Soviet Union was a different story, however. Moscow later refused to withdraw from Iranian Azerbaijan, and decades later, that slight to sovereignty continues to fuel popular distrust toward Russia.
The schism between the regime and the Iranian people today is at its greatest since the first days of the Revolution, when many Iranians fled for their lives from the arbitrary purges and summary executions that marked the regime’s early years. The regime may have survived the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, but its claim to legitimacy perished.
Israel, meanwhile, faces a volatile situation. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 84 years old, partially paralyzed, and a cancer survivor. He has dedicated his life to the eradication of the Jewish state, but Israel continues to thrive. Psychologically, he may want to see Israel’s destruction in the limited time he has left. While some analysts argue he would never risk the regime itself for this aim, he is surrounded by sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear, so he might believe the clerical grip on the country is stronger than it actually is.
The only thing that separates the Iranian people from a better future once Khamenei goes is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are not ideologically homogeneous, but many are true believers, having entered the Guard Corps bubble in myriad children’s programs that begin at age eight. Others will side with the IRGC in any transition for greed, as the IRGC’s economic wing is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Should Israel strike at Iran openly, perhaps targeting Khamenei and senior IRGC leaders, it might mitigate nationalist reaction in four ways.
First, it should pamphlet and broadcast extensively. It must communicate that Israel considers Iranians natural friends. The only targets are senior regime officials with Iranian and Israeli blood on their hands. It should broadcast that IRGC members who no longer embrace an illegitimate regime should desert immediately.
Second, it should target only IRGC sites away from civilian centers such as universities, unless IRGC or paramilitary Basij facilities in such locations can be hit precisely.
Third, it should also target the walls and guard towers of symbols of repression like Evin Prison.
Fourth, it should make clear there will be no occupation, and that Iran’s sovereignty is sacrosanct.
Iran is primed for regime change, but that change cannot be enforced down the barrel of a gun. It will be an indigenous movement led by Iranians for Iranians. There will be little to no role for Iranians outside the country. If Israel feels forced to act by Iran’s growing aggression, it should remember that those who suffer the most from the Islamic Republic’s terror infrastructure are Iranians themselves.
No Iranian wants to be bombed, but if military action is inevitable, it should not only punish the regime, but also remove impediments to the empowerment of ordinary Iranians.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).