Will Iranians rally ‘round the flag?

Israel must consider the Iranian populace while debating a potential strike.

Tehran Iran election protests 521 (photo credit: Anonymous)
Tehran Iran election protests 521
(photo credit: Anonymous)
While debating a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israeli decision-makers must take Iranian citizens into account. Although there is widespread government dissent and resistance in Iran, an Israeli strike could force the Iranian people to “rally ‘round the flag” and support their otherwise hated regime. 
An Israeli attack turned into an Iranian rallying cry would be an ideal scenario for the Iran's rouge regime.
An Israeli strike on Iran, unlike an American-led strike, does not pose an imminent threat to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These leaders realize that such an attack will not jeopardize their personal safety. And personal safety is there only concern. What keeps these two men 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. Stiff international sanctions are wreaking havoc on the economy causing massive inflation and quickly strangling the government's main source of revenue. As desperation escalates amongst the Iranian populace, their willingness to challenge the regime will be renewed.
Critics of a potential Israeli strike, like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, believe that following an Israeli attack, the domestic opposition will be forced to give full-throated support to their despised leaders, thereby eliminating the threat of regime change for many years to come. And there is evidence to support this belief. As Dagan points out, all of the groups who had opposed Khomeini following the Iranian revolution lined up behind him once Iraq invaded their country in 1980.
Proponents of a strike generally reject this argument.
In their recent assessment, the Washington Institute’s Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights dismissed the comparison by 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 1982 Falklands War demonstrates, is that even a hated regime can still garner widespread domestic support when it goes to war.
What will determine whether or not a strike on Iranian facilities helps or hurts the regime in the long-run is if Iranians conclude that the fighting ended in victory or disaster.
In other words, what all regimes 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; it is supported by 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 dictators. War victories considerably extend an autocratic regime’s lifespan.
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. However, such a brief campaign could 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 end hostilities in a way that exposes the rampant incompetence of the Iranian military. Iran’s failure must be so great and so apparent that no amount of regime propaganda can sugar-coat it.
The uncertainty of the Iranian regime's domestic support following a potential Israeli strike makes the stakes even bigger than most assume.
If a strike is very successful, it will not only set back the clock on Iran’s nuclear program, it could also bring forth immediate regime change.
An ineffective Israeli strike could have devastating consequences. If a strike is an explicit failure it could speed up Iran's nuclear program while making the Iranian people even more vulnerable to their oppressive theocratic regime.

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