By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh
July 30, 2022
What would happen inside Iran if America or Israel bombed its nuclear sites? That intriguing question is rarely broached, in part because many in Washington recoil from any speculation that might make such a military contingency a more concrete exercise. Iran’s atomic program keeps advancing, and the odds of any new nuclear deals seriously constraining it seem low, but neither Israel nor America appears keen on striking.
Even when it seemed in 2010 and 2011 that Israel might well attack, Washington, in government and in the somewhat freer realm of think tanks, avoided any prolonged discussion of what an Israeli attack might provoke inside Iran. Before Ebrahim Raisi, a police-state cleric par excellence, became the Islamic Republic’s president last year, there had been some concern in America and Europe that U.S. or Israeli military action might undermine Iranian “moderates.” According to these observers, the moderates were perpetually on the cusp of gaining real power but fragile enough to be undone by American meddling. It was the possibility of Iranian reprisals — against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and against shipping in the Persian Gulf — that really captured America’s attention when it appeared Jerusalem might let loose the Israeli Defense Forces.
Israel has made similar assessments of Iran’s internal dynamics vis-à-vis the efficacy and impact of a first strike. Beyond the strike itself, what has always captured Jerusalem’s attention was whether an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would bring a barrage of Iranian-directed short- and medium-range missiles from Lebanon, where Hezbollah has significant munitions stockpiles. If Israel decides to attack, the sole criterion for unleashing its air force will surely be a firm belief that the operation can significantly damage Iran’s atomic ambitions. If a strike somehow led to internal unrest, the superannuation of senior officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or a new clandestine effort to rebuild the nuclear-weapons program, those might well be secondary considerations reinforcing or weakening Jerusalem’s calculations. But such concerns wouldn’t matter unless the IDF concluded it could scupper the clerical regime’s capacity to build the bomb.
It would have been easier for the IDF to cripple Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and personnel years ago, before the development of advanced centrifuges. But former prime minister Bibi Netanyahu’s cabinet, along with the head of the IDF, declined to back him when he and his defense minister Ehud Barak wanted to attack twelve years ago. Now, it’s very likely that neither Israel’s political class nor its airmen are confident that they can strike as effectively.
Jerusalem’s tempo of attacks on Iranian interests in the region in the last two years, including assassinations inside Iran, is, therefore, best understood as an upping of the conventional ante. These actions signal to Tehran that its nuclear accomplishments will not deter Israel from pushing back against the clerical regime when it can. Jerusalem’s more aggressive behavior isn’t a girding of the loins before a preventive attack but an acknowledgment that it has failed to stop the clerical regime’s nuclear ambitions.
That might change as Israelis internalize the possible ramifications of the Islamic Republic’s going nuclear. The clerical regime, which has repeatedly sponsored or directed terrorism against Jews worldwide, might provoke Jerusalem one too many times, giving the high ground to those who still want to act.
The same still might be true for the United States. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, might make a monumental mistake and execute a mass-casualty terrorist attack against Americans. Over the years, under Democrats and Republicans, Washington has blinked at Iranian terrorism — and, in Iraq, Iranian-sponsored militia attacks against U.S. forces — and done little in response. Khamenei undoubtedly approved the thwarted bombing of an Iranian opposition rally outside of Paris in 2018; if it had succeeded, hundreds, including many Americans, might have died. The supreme leader, who can expatiate endlessly on his enmity for the United States, might let hubris get the better of him — he’s unquestionably winning in his decades-old quest to develop nuclear weapons. If enough Americans died through Iranian terrorism, the bipartisan reluctance to support another military foray into the Middle East might evaporate.
So would an Israeli or American strike convulse Iran’s political system? The nuclear-weapons program has become the third pillar of Khamenei’s theocracy (the other two being anti-Americanism and the veil). If the Israelis, whom the regime asperses as Zionists ready for extinction, can badly damage the nuclear program, the regime will lose face. Iranian VIPs, especially within the Revolutionary Guards, have said repeatedly that the Israelis wouldn’t dare strike the nation’s atomic sites. This confidence has surely diminished since Israel started assassinating scientists and officials, including IRGC personnel, and periodically sabotaging nuclear-related equipment. If the Israelis do dare and succeed, it will be a stunning blow. It’s one thing to have the “Great Satan,” a superpower, lay waste your program; it’s another thing entirely to have the “Little Satan” do it.
And military defeats can be deadly for dictatorships. Historically, there’s nothing deadlier. If an Israeli or American strike led to a larger war — and there are good reasons to believe that Iran would be nervous about replying in an escalatory conventional manner after the U.S. Navy intervened (terrorism is a much more likely response) — then the possibility of adverse internal repercussions would increase. While there is no guarantee that an Israeli or American raid would cause sufficient shock to produce a convulsive — let alone fatal — internal backlash against Khamenei and the Guards, there is a chance it would start a process that might. Nothing else on the horizon offers Israel or America better odds of creating considerable turbulence quickly within the system.
It’s certain that the revolution-loyal left, right, and center (these Western terms don’t really capture how the Iranian ruling elite divides itself) would rise in umbrage against any Zionist aggression. But the West exaggerates the Iranian reflex to rally around the flag after an Israeli or American strike. Iranians aren’t automatons. Compared with Arabs and Turks, who lack an ancient cosmopolitan culture reinforcing their modern identity, Iranians don’t have a jagged and brittle patriotism. They are an old and sophisticated people quite capable of holding multiple hatreds concurrently. The massive, pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009, which for days shook the streets of Tehran, and nationwide demonstrations in 2017 and 2019, which again convulsed the ruling elite and led to wicked police-state repression, are upwellings of over 40 years of ire at theocracy. This won’t go away because Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear sites.
The notion that the Iranian ruling class would somehow benefit from a resurgent nationalism caused by an external attack ignores the decades the mullahs have spent denouncing nationalism as another noxious Western imposition on the Middle East. In particular, Khamenei is leery of Iranian nationalism and how it might thwart the Islamic project. “The enemies of Islam and Muslims want the Islamic ummah to be disunited,” he avers. “They create ethnic discord. They promote radical nationalism in different countries. They divide Muslims into groups and label them as Persians, Arabs, Turks, Pakistanis, Shia and Sunni.” Iran’s theocrats have insisted that the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is predicated on its divine ordinance rather than on notions of Persian nationalism. In what is undoubtedly a self-defeating move, the clerical regime has done much to untether itself from one of the most powerful forces in modern politics.
The clerical regime’s defeat in the Iran–Iraq War did not make Iranians rally to theocracy. On the contrary, that defeat by Saddam Hussein helped to unleash an enormous wave of reflection and self-criticism. The Iranian people have since asked searching questions about the war itself. Why did the conflict continue when an armistice was available in 1982, after the victory at Khorramshahr when Saddam’s armies retreated back into Iraq? Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s right-hand man, exerted considerable effort trying to hide the fact that he was strongly in favor of turning a defensive, “imposed” war into a major offensive designed to down Saddam and extend the Islamic revolution. For the parents who lost sons from 1982 to 1988, the war is a haunting indictment of a state bent on exporting its cause. The Islamic Republic’s ritual celebrations of the conflict have always rung hollow for millions who saw combat or whose loved ones died or were maimed in a war reminiscent of the Western Front in World War I.
Indeed, without the Iran–Iraq War, we likely would not have seen the transformation of the Islamic Republic’s religious and political culture — a second intellectual revolution that robbed the theocracy of the revolutionary left and eventually created the Green Movement. This political evolution ignited in about five years, from 1988 to 1992, when the regime-critical but revolution-loyal Islamic left began to take shape. By 1999 that “left” was ready to transform the government into a real democracy, which is why this movement was crushed by clerics who’d been instrumental in building the theocracy — Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani (the latter two are often categorized as “moderates” by Westerners who used to see Thermidor just around the corner).
No figure was more venerated in the Islamic Republic’s relentless propaganda machine than General Qasem Soleimani. He was the man who defeated America in Iraq, took on the Islamic State with ingenuity, and planted the Islamic Republic’s flag from the slums of Beirut to the mountain villages of Yemen. On January 3, 2020, Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone attack. The regime initially used its latest martyr to rally public support in mourning ceremonies that attracted thousands. The general was an iconic figure who elicited contradictory emotions from even die-hard opponents of the regime. (His magnetism may have sprung from his image as the great Shiite defender against rapacious Sunnis.) That “goodwill” evaporated rapidly. In its panic and fear of further American attacks, the Revolutionary Guards shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 passengers. The Iranian street and college campuses erupted again, this time in denunciation of the regime. “They are lying that our enemy is America; our enemy is right here,” protesters chanted. A brutal crackdown restored order, but this episode revealed how attenuated the bonds between state and society have become — even a foreign attack cannot redound to the government’s advantage. As with the last days of the Pahlavi dynasty, the Islamic Republic has lost the ability to control the national narrative.
Today, the theocratic state is bereft of a reliable constituency, let alone a convincing governing dogma. It is beset by persistent protests from all segments of society. The poor who were once the theocracy’s mainstay have joined the ranks of the disaffected. The economy benefits only the connected, and class stratification has never been more provocative. Corruption is endemic. Khamenei and his allies are no longer even pretending to seek the public’s approbation. The elections that once offered at least a pretense of choice, and could generate considerable national excitement, are now rubber stamps of choices made by Khamenei and his inner circle. Voter turnout, even when orchestrated by the regime, has plummeted. All the mullahs have left at their disposal are the security organs.
If the Israelis or Americans can make Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards look pathetic, it might lead to a national questioning, a slow-motion chain reaction that could seriously weaken the regime. Anger no longer rises gradually in the Islamic Republic. It explodes immediately and nationally when the system can’t nip local protests in the bud. A scenario of rapidly increasing protests after a bombing raid isn’t probable, given the ruthlessness of the Iranian police state, but such an eventuality shouldn’t be ruled out. The regime is, however, most unlikely to see the reverse: an American or Israeli raid reinforcing popular support for the theocracy. Resentment toward the mullahs is simply too entrenched.