Will Iranians rally around the flag?

The stakes involved in an Israeli strike are even bigger than most assume.

Iranian Flag (R)_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian Flag (R)_311
(photo credit: 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 argument.
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 lifespan considerably.
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.
Understanding 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 University.