How will Ayatollah Ali Khamenei react?
This is surely the question Western policymakers are asking themselves over the latest standoff between Iran and the United States.
With tensions rising in the Strait of Hormuz following Iran’s threat to blockade the waterway, and the U.S. insistence that this won’t be allowed to happen, it’s clear that unless Iran’s supreme leader achieves a quick victory through a sudden spike in oil prices, something which would likely pressure Barack Obama to cancel new sanctions on Iran, he could be compelled to act on the country’s threats.
With Iran’s currency tumbling, and a rise in oil prices uncertain, the likelihood of an Iranian backlash can’t be ignored.
Certainly, the recent standoff with the United States has damaged Iran’s deterrence posture. In less than a week, Khamenei challenged Obama twice and lost out on both occasions. First there was the threat that “not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz” if new sanctions are imposed by the U.S. and others. But sanctions were imposed anyway, with no apparent consequences. This move was followed by another threat, with the Islamic Republic this time vowing to take action “if the U.S. Navy moves an aircraft carrier into the Gulf.” Within hours, though, the U.S. government met that challenge by stating that it would keep sending carrier strike groups through the Persian Gulf regardless of the threats.
But while the potential international fallout of all this has been discussed, there’s been virtually no comment on the domestic implications of Khamenei’s loss of face. The reality is that the Iranian regime needs to show muscle abroad. Failure to do so could be interpreted as a sign of weakness by its opponents at home, and could even create division among the leadership’s supporters.
The supreme leader is keen to avoid either of these things, not least because in two months’ time the government will be hosting a new round of parliamentary (Majlis) elections. These polls will be the first elections since the tumultuous presidential elections of 2009. And Khamenei has no choice but to go ahead with them – canceling isn’t an option. The postponement of last year’s city council elections to 2013 (they will now take place alongside the next presidential elections) has already been interpreted as a sign of regime insecurity. To do the same with the upcoming Majlis elections, which are far more important, would give the opposition an even bigger boost. Hardliners within the regime would never forgive him for it.
With this in mind, then, the supreme leader has already started to take action to mitigate the risks. The imprisonment of former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi for eight years, and the jailing of Ayatollah Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh for six months, are part of the preparations. Both were critics of the events surrounding the 2009 elections, and both have their own supporters. Should the new Majles elections face criticism as fraudulent as well, the regime would have felt under significant pressure. Better, then, to lock them away to keep them from making trouble.
But the reality for Khamenei is that flexing his muscles at home is unlikely to be enough.
And, in terms of targets abroad, Israel surely could be at the top of Khamenei’s wish list. After all, striking the United States would only rally support around any Obama election year response, something Khamenei is surely desperate to avoid. Of course, Arab targets are another possibility, but one would imagine that Iran is loath to do something that would see Tehran further isolated in the region.
As a result, attacking Israel in some way could be seen by Iran as the least costly option, diplomatically at least. In the event of such an attack, Persian Gulf countries certainly aren’t going to rush to Israel’s side. And, although they are unlikely to actually explicitly back Iran taking such action (and they are, in fact, quite worried about the prospects of a nuclear Iran), the Arab world is undoubtedly angry with Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the peace process. Israel’s diplomatic isolation was compounded by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s warning to EU powers France, Britain and Germany that they risked making themselves “irrelevant” in the peace process.
This isolation has left Israel dangerously exposed. Although Israel maintains military superiority, as the 2009 Gaza war and the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident demonstrated, military might isn’t enough to ensure its security against asymmetric threats. Israel needs diplomatic credibility and leverage abroad. Without these, Israeli military victories in such confrontations could turn into unmitigated diplomatic disasters, and the country could be left facing some costly (in terms of time and cash) damage control as well as long and drawn out internal investigations.
Of course, to Israeli citizens, the threat posed by Iran is very real – many Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings on buses and in cafes, in attacks bankrolled by Ayatollah Khamenei’s government and carried out by Hamas. Although disputes exist over whether a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat or not, the perceived threat Tehran poses is one of the few issues on which there’s political consensus.
So, back to the cornered and isolated Khamenei. Will he lash out at Israel, using asymmetric warfare tactics from Gaza, lawless Sinai or Lebanon? With Israel’s diplomatic standing be at an all-time low, one has to ask: if Israel couldn’t seize a single Turkish ship (the Mavi Marmara) without causing a diplomatic firestorm, how will it be able to enter Gaza, Lebanon, or Egypt (where Egyptians are reportedly forming their own Iran-inspired Revolutionary Guards) to chase down possible Iran financed terrorists?
Clearly, the threat from a possible nuclear Iran must be addressed. But at the same time, Israel should be prepared to counter the asymmetric danger posed from a non-nuclear Iran, something far more likely than the much-discussed nuclear threat.
Judging from the country’s severely exposed diplomatic flank, though, Israel looks sadly ill-prepared to meet that threat.