Amid increased debate about whether Israel should act militarily against Tehran’s nuclear program, experts were divided on Sunday over how a preemptive strike on Iran would affect support for the regime.
Some say such a move would play into Iran’s hands by buoying up popular support for an unpopular regime.
However, others speculate that a military strike may instead boost the opposition movement, which since the regime’s brutal crackdown of protests after the allegedly rigged 2009 presidential election has been unable to mount a popular revolt. Dr. Soli Shahvar, head of Haifa University’s Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, said that Iran’s response to any preemptive military strike on its nuclear facilities would depend on many factors including the number of civilian casualties.
Heavy civilian casualties would likely unite popular feeling against the aggressor, including by Iranians who do not support the regime.
However, according to Shahvar, the scenario could be different in the event of precision aerial attacks that damaged facilities but did not kill or injure large numbers of civilians, if Iranians believed that such strikes could help bring down the regime.
“Iranians might see that this could be a scenario for regime change, or at least for some sort of change to the current situation,” Shahvar said.
He added that the opposition movement has avoided violent protests after the regime quashed popular dissent in 2009. In 2011, the regime cracked down again on demonstrations in support of Egyptian and Tunisian protests, placing opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest. The opposition has also seen how Iran has supported and assisted Syrian president Bashar Assad quash Syrian opposition fighters, Shahvar said.
“So they ask what the regime would do if such a revolt occurred at home,” he added.
Shahvar said that Western sanctions against Iran, which have had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy, are nevertheless not enough to prevent the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.
According to a recent Bloomberg report, sanctions have hit Iran hard, costing the regime $133 million a day in lost oil sales.
However, Shahvar noted that the sanctions and oil embargo have not succeeded in cutting Iran off completely.
Al-Bawaba news reported on Sunday that Iran is still managing to find ways around sanctions to export around one million barrels per day of crude, mostly to Asian countries like Japan, China, India and South Korea.
“The regime has decided to go the distance and do whatever it needs to acquire the means to deter attack,” Shahvar said.
Meir Javedanfar, who lectures in contemporary Iranian politics at the IDC Herzliya, said that any preemptive strike against Iran would not succeed in uniting the opposition against the regime.
“The regime would even welcome such an attack, because it could actually help shore it up,” Javedanfar noted, adding that there would likely be a boost in popularity for the regime after such an attack, at least in the short term.
According to Javedanfar, the opposition would not use a preemptive strike by a foreign power against Iran’s nuclear facilities as a battlecry to unite people against the regime.
“An overwhelming number of people in Iran are opposed to the regime but they are also against an attack on Iranian soil by a foreign force,” he said, adding that such an attack would bolster nationalistic feeling in Iran.
However, Javedanfar said that Western sanctions were already causing the regime to lose popularity, because of their effect on Iran’s economy.
A preemptive strike, however, would lessen the effect of sanctions and could also lead to some Western countries ending their embargo against Iran, he added.
“Continuing the status quo [of sanctions] will weaken the regime even before it achieves nuclear weapons,” Javedanfar concluded.
Iran expert Prof. David Menashri, president of the Academic Center of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, said that while Iran’s response to an Israeli military strike would depend on multiple factors including the kind of attack and its degree of success, the regime’s immediate reaction to any attack – regardless if carried out by Israel or the US – would likely be to attempt to unify the Iranian people against the foreign attackers.
“The regime is in a delicate situation, with considerable pressure from the inside,” Menashri said, noting that Iranians were dissatisfied with the regime’s lack of social and political justice and freedom. The regime’s concern over its position was evident from the recent visit of Supreme National Security Council chief Saeed Jalili to Iran’s allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, he added.
However, Menashri said that Israel needed “better channels of communication” with the US to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, which was a problem not just for Israel but also for the US and Europe. “There needs to be transatlantic unity on this issue, with the US and Europe” he said, adding that Israeli discussion about a possible military strike should “not be so public”.
“We are playing into [Iran’s] hands by giving the impression that the prime minister [Binyamin Netanyahu] does not have agreement or support from his cabinet or the military for an attack,” he added. “So when Iran hears that, they are not afraid.”
Menashri’s comments come after hardline Iranian daily Kayhan, which is supervised directly by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, headlined on Sunday with “Netanyahu alone against Iran, even in his cabinet.”
Citing Israel’s Army Radio, Kayhan reported that military officials oppose a preemptive strike.
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