Will Iranians rally around the flag?
The stakes involved in an Israeli strike are even bigger than most assume.
Iranian Flag Photo: Reuters
When debating whether or not to undertake a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear
facilities, one key consideration for Israeli decision makers will be whether
such a strike will force the Iranian people to “rally around the flag,”
supporting their otherwise hated regime?
This is essential because an Israeli
strike on Iran, unlike an American-led strike, does not pose an imminent threat
to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad. They realize that such an attack will not endanger their personal
safety. What keeps them up at night is their fear of sharing the fate of
Mubarak, Ben Ali, Saleh, or Gaddafi.
Today, Iran’s leadership has good
reason to fear the renewal of mass protests, especially following the imposition
of stiff international sanctions that are wreaking havoc on the economy, causing
massive inflation and quickly strangling the government’s main source of
revenue. As the population becomes more desperate, their willingness to
challenge the regime again will grow.
Critics of a potential Israeli
strike, like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, hold that following an Israeli
attack, the domestic opposition will be forced to give full-throated support to
their despised leaders, eliminating the threat of regime change for many years
to come. Evidence for this outcome is that all the groups who had opposed
Khomeini following the revolution lined up squarely behind him once Iraq invaded
their country in 1980.
Proponents of a strike generally reject this
In their recent assessment, the Washington Institute’s Michael
Eisenstadt and Michael Knights dismissed the comparison, pointing out that “In
1980, Iran was in the throes of a revolution that enjoyed widespread popular
support, while today, the regime is extremely unpopular among large segments of
the population and is liable to be held responsible for what many Iranians may
believe is an avoidable conflict.”
The problem with this claim, as the
Falkland War demonstrates, is that even a hated regime can still garner
widespread domestic support when it goes to war.
INSTEAD, WHAT will
determine whether or not a strike on Iranian facilities helps or hurts the
regime in the long-run is whether or not Iranians conclude the fighting itself
ended in victory or disaster.
In other words, what regimes of all stripes
have difficulty surviving – again exemplified by the Argentinean junta – is an
unequivocal and embarrassing loss on the battlefield. Such an assertion does not
rely on one anecdote or another, but is supported by an impressive statistical
analysis of all state leaders from 1919-1999 conducted by two American
professors, Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans.
Controlling for a large
array of other factors, such as which side initiated hostilities, these authors
found that defeat in a war “significantly reduces the tenure of leaders” –
especially for dictators. Victory in war, it extends an autocratic regime’s
This conclusion has critical implications. Until
today, Israeli military planners have focused on how to limit the fighting that
would follow an initial Israeli strike. Yet, such a short campaign might allow
the regime to paint a rosier picture of the outcome, thus reducing the
likelihood of regime change (i.e. a “Persian Spring”). Instead, planners must
consider how (despite limited resources) Israel can best end hostilities in such
a way that Iranian military incompetence is laid bare. Iran’s failure must be so
great that no amount of regime propaganda can sugarcoat it.
that whether an attack will bolster or weaken the regime’s domestic support
cannot be known in advance means that the stakes involved in an Israeli strike
are even bigger than most assume. If a strike is very successful, it will not
only set back the clock on Iran’s nuclear program, but it could also move
forward the clock on regime change. If a strike is an unambiguous failure, it
would be a “double whammy”: it could bring us even closer to the day Iran goes
nuclear while furthering the day the Iranian people get out from under the thumb
of their oppressive theocratic regime.
The writer is Neubauer Research
Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv