Between Iranian Bombast and the Bomb

Iran’s aggressive rhetoric might actually be aimed at baiting Israel into a first-strike.

Ahamadenijad 300 (photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)
Ahamadenijad 300
(photo credit: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)
On May 20, Iranian Chief of Staff Maj.- Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi told a conference that “The Iranian nation is standing for its cause, which is the full annihilation of Israel.”
The next day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cited this remark as further evidence of Iran's deadly intentions: “Iran's goals are clear.  It wants to annihilate Israel and is developing nuclear weapons to realize this goal.”
As Israeli researchers Joshua Teitelbaum and Michael Segall demonstrated in a recent report, Firouzabadi’s remarks are not new or unexpected. Statements of this sort are common fare for Iranian political and military leaders.
So how are we to understand these statements?
Usually, the debate in this regard has two schools of thought:
The first sees Iran's leadership as either a bunch of unrestrained messianic madmen, a cadre of reckless ideologues bent on regional domination. Proponents of this first school say that when the Iranian leadership makes statements calling for the annihilation of Israel, it is because that’s what the regime actually believes in and aspires to carry out.
A second school of thought takes a more skeptical approach. They argue that the leadership does not even buy its own ideology, and in fact, has no intention of attacking Israel. These theorists contend that entire Iranian bluster is a charade designed to distract the Iranian people from their government's numerous domestic failings.
Recently, former Mossad head Meir Dagan suggested a third possibility: Iran’s statements might actually be aimed at baiting Israel into a strike.
How so? Should Israel – and not the international community – strike Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran could portray itself as the victim of aggression. An Israeli first-strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could lead to Iran gaining global understanding for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Iran could then abscond from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and absolve itself from its previous commitments without paying the heavy price such a move would entail today.
Domestically, the regime in Tehran might believe an Israeli strike could be an even bigger boon.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do not fear an Israeli military strike — personally, they will survive such an attack. What keeps them up at night is the possibility of renewed mass protests.
With stiff international sanctions wreaking havoc on the economy, causing massive inflation, and strangling the government's main source of revenue, the likelihood of sharing the fate of Mubarak or Gaddafi is growing.
Yet an Israeli attack, the Ayatollahs might hope, would force the domestic opposition to give full-throated support to their despised leaders, eliminating the threat of regime change for many years to come.
Foreseeing so many potential domestic and international benefits from an Israeli strike, Iranian calls for Israel’s annihilation are possibly part of a strategy to goad Israel into an attack.
Firouzabadi’s May 20 comments give credibility to this third approach.
The comments were made as IAEA representatives were scheduled to arrive for further negotiations and as the major world powers were attempting to sell the world on the progress of the Istanbul and Baghdad meetings.
Those (like Netanyahu) who argue that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel must wonder: why are the Iranians not simply staying quiet for now? Announcing their intention to destroy Israel only makes action against their nuclear program more likely and reduces the prospects for successful negotiations.
Yet, even if these speculations are true, it should not affect a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities — the Ayatollahs may have very well overestimated the domestic and international benefits of a first-strike by the Israelis.
What it should force us to reconsider is our present strategy of dangling a credible military threat in an effort to stop Iran.
Admittedly, this conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom that has dominated strategic studies, from Thomas Schelling to Carl von Clausewitz himself.
Yet, if the Iranian regime is praying Israel will attack, then paradoxically, the more credible the Israeli threat is, the more Iranians are encouraged to maintain their intransigence. Iran may avoid making tough concessions in hope that Israel will come along to help them escape their present bind.

The writer is a Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.