How could Iran retaliate for Natanz explosion? - analysis

Iran’s regime, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, believes in two types of actions. It believes first in perceived tit-for-tat responses and also in asymmetric attacks.

View of a damage building after a fire broke out at Iran's Natanz Nuclear Facility, in Isfahan, Iran, July 2, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS)
View of a damage building after a fire broke out at Iran's Natanz Nuclear Facility, in Isfahan, Iran, July 2, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As evidence mounts and pressure builds on Tehran’s regime in the wake of the explosions that badly damaged a facility at Natanz, questions focus on how Iran might respond.
The government is in a difficult position because it labeled the explosion an accident, but it is now facing a deluge of foreign media reports seeking to conclude that the explosion was perpetrated by a state or group.
This is what Iran’s regime is reading: Major media from The New York Times to The Washington Post and local media such as Kuwait’s Al-Jarida have all sought to assert that Israel was involved in the mysterious July 2 explosion at a warehouse in the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility.
The Times and Post quoted a Middle East security official as saying the damage was done to “send a signal” to Tehran. Reports also claim damage was done to key centrifuges or possibly to advanced gas inputs to the IR-6 centrifuges. That could set back the program for months or a year.
Iran, however, is at a crossroads in other ways. It has sent tankers to Venezuela to boost gas trade. It’s supporters in Iraq may have gunned down a well-known local commentator named Husham al-Hashimi. Iran is also benefiting from a UN expert opinion that deemed the US killing of IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani an ‘unlawful’ killing. The Islamic Republic has also triggered a dispute mechanism regarding the 2015 Iran deal.
That means Iran must weigh any response to the Natanz explosion against military and political fallout.
HOW MIGHT Iran respond to what it perceives as an attack, if the regime does draw that conclusion from Natanz?
Iran’s regime, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, believes in two types of actions. It believes first in perceived tit-for-tat responses, such as the ballistic missile strike carried out in January after Soleimani was killed by the US.
It also believes in asymmetric attacks, such as targeting mining ships in the Gulf of Oman to stir up a crisis in May and June 2019, or the September 2019 attack on the Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq.
Iran has also carried out attacks on Israel from Syria.
In May 2018, amid tensions over the US withdrawing from the Iran deal and the Syrian regime’s offensive in southern Syria, a salvo of rockets was fired toward the Golan.
In February 2018, a drone was also launched from T-4, flying into Israeli airspace before being shot down.
Iran has retaliated in other ways at other times. When ISIS was accused of targeting a parade in Ahvaz in September 2018, Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile fired at the jihadist group in Syria on October 1, 2018.
On September 8, 2018, Iran also fired ballistic missiles at Kurdish dissidents near Koya in retaliation for increased Kurdish militant activity in Iran.
IRAN'S USUAL method of responding, however, is to vow to respond and then do nothing. Tehran vowed a “hard revenge” response for the killing of Soleimani in January. But Iran’s IRGC planned a ballistic missile strike that it likely knew would not kill people.
US forces in Iraq had warning of the incoming missiles and soldiers were able to take shelter. It was a gamble for Iran. If Iran killed any Americans the US would retaliate. Instead, Iran shot down a civilian Ukrainian airliner in Tehran during the missile strike on the US forces in Iraq.
Iran thus “responded” by killing innocent people because its air defense is incompetent. It’s not the first time that this incompetence has had bad results. Similar incompetence by Syrian air defenders shot down a Russian airplane in the fall of 2018 during Israeli airstrikes in northern Syria.
Iran has often vowed or hinted at retaliation against Israel for more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Yet the evidence points to just a few rockets fired toward Israel from Syria. Rockets were fired last year on January 20, June 2 and November 19; there was also the February 2018 drone attack, the May 2018 salvo and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah “killer drone” incident in August 2019.
Adding it all up shows that Iran talks a lot about revenge and warnings of destruction but rarely does what it says it will do. This isn’t for lack of trying. Iran has sent precision guidance for Hezbollah munitions via Syria. It has helped Hezbollah stockpile an arsenal of 150,000 rockets. It helped Hezbollah with its drone program. It also sent ballistic missiles to Syria in the fall of 2018 and 2019.
It has also funneled technology, know-how, experts, advice and weapons to the Houthis in Yemen. This resulted in long-range ballistic missile attacks by Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia. In December 2017, the Houthis even managed to reach almost all the way to Riyadh before their missiles were shot down. Iranian drones – the Qasef and Sammad models the Houthis adapted from Iranian models – have wreaked havoc on Saudi Arabia. In just the last month there have been explosive-laden drone attacks on Saudi.
IN ADDITION we know that Iran shot down a $200 million US Global Hawk surveillance drone in June 2019. Iran claimed it could have shot down a manned US P-8 plane at the same time. But it correctly judged that if they killed Americans, US President Donald Trump would retaliate.
Instead, Trump chose not to kill Iranians in response to an expensive piece of machinery being lost. Similarly, Trump warned Iran about harassing US ships in the Persian Gulf. Iranians had driven fast boats around US ships in April 2020, even showing off a heavy machine gun cocked and ready at the bow of one boat. But Iran likes this kind of showing off; actually shooting at US ships is another matter. Iran knows its navy would be sunk within an afternoon should it actually attack US ships.
The regime in Iran calculates carefully. It calculates retaliation carefully and knows that it has suffered many setbacks. Iran’s real retaliation and response is not tit-for-tat against enemies that are more powerful, but rather using its system of militias to burrow into countries and take them over from the bottom up. Its real retaliation is having more Hezbollah power in Lebanon’s parliament.
Iran only has up to 800 IRGC personnel in Syria. But real retaliation is setting down roots near the Golan and recruiting locals. This is a multi-decade project. Iran chooses its actual attacks with caution and also with daring, such as the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq in September.
Iran calculated correctly that Riyadh won’t bomb it in response. Iran’s drones and cruise missiles harmed Abqaiq’s facility but caused no casualties. That is the way Iran weighs its attacks today. When Tehran decides that it must retaliate, either for perceived sabotage inside Iran, or after it collects evidence and presents it, then the system of the IRGC will choose carefully its methods – from mines to missiles and drones – to strike at Iran’s enemies across the region.