Speculation over a possible Israeli military strike on Iran has increased since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report assessing that Iran’s uranium enrichment program continues to make incremental progress. One party that appears unconvinced, however, is the Iranian leadership. As the Washington Post’s editorial board noted after the IAEA report’s release, “What’s particularly striking about Iran’s behavior is that the nation’s leaders seem to ignore the possibility that it will provoke Israel into launching a military strike on the nuclear facilities in the coming weeks. Perhaps Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei doesn’t take the Israeli threat seriously.”
In many ways, this mirrors the debate in the United States, where the Republican Party, led by its Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has repeatedly criticized President Obama for failing to make his threat to use military action against Iran’s nuclear program seem credible in the eyes of the Iranian leadership. And if some would simply dismiss Romney’s statements as mere political jockeying, they would have a harder time doing so to some of the nation’s premier defense analysts that have also made this argument.
Indeed, the Washington Post, Romney, and others are in all likelihood correct to argue that Iran doesn’t take the threat of U.S. or Israeli military strikes seriously. Where they error, however, is in thinking that much can be done to change this.
In fact, Iranian leaders have good reason to dismiss the U.S. and Israel’s threats. Despite evidence to the contrary, the conventional wisdom continues to be that leaders assess the credibility of their adversaries’ military threats based on how those countries acted under similar circumstances in the past. If Supreme Leader Khamenei is using this method to judge Western threats, it’s little wonder he’s unconcerned.
The United States, for example, has never launched preventive air strikes against another country’s nuclear facilities. On the other hand, it has seriously considered doing so on two occasions: during Maoist China’s race for the bomb in the early 1960’s, and again when North Korea’s nuclear program was progressing in the early 1990’s. In both cases the U.S. administrations’ weighed the military option intensely– in the case of China, President John F. Kennedy went so far as to try and enlist the Soviet Union in the operation, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefly entertained the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the facilities- but would later decide against it. In both cases, the proliferating state ultimately acquired a nuclear weapons capability. There is little reason for Iran to think this time will be any different.
In fact, if anything, the prospect of a nuclear-armed China and North Korea seemed like far more menacing threats to the U.S. and its allies than an Iranian bomb does today. This is especially true in the case of China, which, under Mao in the early 1960’s, embodied the most troubling aspects of the Islamic Republic on a much greater scale. As one observer has pointedly noted, “In 1964, when the PRC tested its first nuclear device, China was perhaps the most ‘rogue’ state in modern history.”
Indeed, while Iran’s revolutionary edge has diminished somewhat, China in the early 1960’s was still at the peak of its revolutionary fervor and wholly intent on upending the regional and global orders through its support of insurgent groups fighting the U.S. and its allies.
Furthermore, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had none of the Islamic Republic’s hesitancy about the direct application of military force. Thus, while the Islamic Republic has never invaded a neighbor, Mao provoked a number of crises with Taiwan in the 1950’s and invaded India two years before testing his first nuclear device. Similarly, while Iran responded to the U.S. invading two of its neighbors by funneling covert aid to local actors, China sent hundreds of thousands of troops dashing across the North Korean border to confront the U.S.-led UN forces head-on. Ultimately, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Chinese soldiers died fighting in Korea, including Mao’s own son.
Iranian leaders’ outlandish rhetoric also seems timid next to Mao’s own pronouncements. To be sure, the world should be outraged when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s proclaims that the “occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time.” However deplorable this and similar statements certainly are, they pale in comparison to Mao’s almost eager embrace of a global nuclear exchange, stating, in at least one speech, “If worse came to the worst and half of mankind died [in a nuclear war], the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed to the ground, and the whole world would become socialist: in a number of years there would be 2.7 billion people again and definitely more." And while the Islamic Republic is by no means a champion of human rights, its terrible repression does not even come close to approaching that of Maoist China, where tens of millions of Chinese died as a result of Mao’s policies.
And yet even with this track record, during a time when nuclear deterrence seemed completely unsustainable even with the Soviet Union, Washington ultimately acquiesced to a Chinese bomb. American leaders would do so again over four decades later when North Korea, another fierce, erratic, and aggressive adversary, exploded its first nuclear weapon. With this history in mind, it’d be surprising if Iranian leaders did believe the U.S. threats.
On first glance, it might appear that Khamenei would be equally foolish to not take Israel threats seriously. After all, since going nuclear itself, Israel has an unblemished record of acting militarily to prevent other regional states from doing likewise. This has included air raids against Iraq’s Osirak research reactor in 1981, and another aerial operation to destroy a nuclear site in Syria in 2007. Furthermore, at least in the case of Iraq, Israeli leaders were undeterred from ordering the strikes despite the considerable doubt over whether the country’s air force was capable of carrying out the operation.
On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear than this historical record actually casts doubt on Israel’s current threats against Iran. The most glaring difference between the two cases where Israel did take action and that of the Islamic Republic, is in the former cases Tel Aviv acted very early on and with little of the debate seen today. This is especially true in the case of Syria, where the air raid was conducted before anyone besides a few other nations’ intelligence agencies even had the slightest suspicions about the site. Even the IAEA was completely unaware of the nuclear site beforehand.
While this point is often raised in discussing the greater difficult Israel would encounter in any military operation against Iran’s more expansive and dispersed nuclear program, another point is often overlooked. Namely, what the differences in Israeli policy towards these three nuclear states says about Tel Aviv’s threat perceptions towards them. Whereas even the most distant prospects of a nuclear-armed Iraq or Syria spurred Israeli leaders into action almost immediately, Tel Aviv has had full knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program for over a decade, and in fact has watched it expand substantially. And while Israeli leaders have declared they will never allow Iran to go nuclear time and again, in the case of Syria they never risked even making this threat. They simply took care of the problem and then immediately imposed a blackout on information regarding the raid, including forbidding the Israeli media to cover it.
Indeed, the way Tel Aviv handled the Syrian and Iraqi nuclear programs is far more in line with its history, where Israeli leaders have almost always dealt proactively when they believed the country’s security is at stake. The relative restraint Israel has exercised with Iran’s nuclear program is therefore peculiar, and Israeli leaders have never attempted to explain the discrepancy. From the perch of Tehran, Supreme Leader Khamenei would not be entirely unjustified in concluding from it that Israel’s threats are empty bluster.
This is particularly true given the margin of error Khamenei has to work with in this case. After all, if this interpretation turns out to be wrongheaded, and Israel does end up attacking, it is the Iranian leadership-currently besieged with international sanctions, an elite declining both numerically and ideologically, and an Arab world fixated on the brutal crackdown in Syria that Tehran is actively supporting- that stands to benefit the most. Given the primacy the regime places on self-survival, then, the threat of Israeli or U.S. air strikes, no matter how believable, will not compel the Iranian leadership to relent on its nuclear program. After all these airstrikes would do far to shore up the regime than further progress on uranium enrichment ever could.
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat.