The possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities is increasing every day: some even expect it could happen as early as the end of this year.
The strange thing is that Iran has been directing most of its recent rhetoric not against the most likely attacker — Israel — but against the United States.
On Monday, General Meer Faisal Baqir Zadeh of Iran’s armed forces general command declared that Iran will be digging 320,000 graves in a number of provinces bordering Iraq and the Gulf to bury dead American attackers. One wonders: why Americans and not Israeli attackers?
The answer to this question - and why the US is clearly worried about the threats - becomes apparent after examining the likely scope and nature of such a confrontation that takes all of the potential actors into account.
The most likely starting point is a quick and intensive Israeli air strike targeting Iran’s uranium enrichment plants and other nuclear facilities crucial to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. What would follow remains unclear right now. However, a logical path can be deduced from the initial action given the declared and implicit policies, fears, and ambitions of Iran.
According to the chief of the IRGC General Mohammed Ali Jaafari, Iran would seal off the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf if attacked. It will even attack any countries from which an American attack comes.
Iran has long wanted to believe that America can’t take action against it because of America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. public’s distaste for opening yet another front. Iran is trying to use this presumed situation to deter an Israeli attack by threatening to force the U.S. to participate in a large-scale operation against it should such an attack occur.
Tehran is thus strategically threatening to expand the war beyond the presumed limits of a) the American public’s tolerance or b) the price the U.S. is ready to pay to eliminate a threat to Israel, the Gulf, and maybe European — but not American — soil.
Iran has also threatened to use its surrogates in the Middle East to escalate operations against Israeli and U.S. troops. This means that Iran wants to have concerned countries apply pressure on Israel not to attack by threatening open war in the Middle East.
If Iran’s deterrence plan fails — and it most likely will since the threat is existential to Israel — it will clearly still try to expand the conflict. Dragging the U.S. into a war that cannot be won would provide Tehran with a propaganda victory that could be used to relieve the pain of losing their nuclear program. Not a bad trade, especially that Israel is going to bomb it anyway.
Seeking to expand the breadth of such a war could also help Tehran save face if, as seems likely, severe blows are dealt to its war machine.
Appearing helpless in the face of an offensive by a small state like Israel would severely damage the image of the regime among the population beyond the inflicted material loss. But losing in battle to a coalition of several states including the world’s sole superpower could be used to turn a defeat into a domestic propaganda victory that revolves around the survival of the regime.
Iran is relatively better positioned for something like this than Saddam was in 1991, at least in the sense that the nuclear program is seen as a more legitimate cause among Iranians than Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was among Iraqis.
Iran could claim that the U.S. Air Force took part in the strikes, or at least that it provided logistical support to the waves of Israeli fighter jets. Such involvement, in their thinking, would justify attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and the Gulf region, inviting American retaliation.
Tehran will be betting on the following as a plan to avoid the toppling of their regime:
First, the declared and internationally to-be-accepted objective of an Israeli/American strike is to stop Iran from going nuclear, much like the declared objective of Desert Storm was to liberate Kuwait. Toppling regimes is something that coalitions weren’t supportive of in 1991 and won’t support in the coming war.
Second, Iran has mastered the ways of guerrilla war. They may be justified in their belief that if their surrogates in Lebanon and Iraq can continue to survive Israel’s attacks or disrupt post-invasion efforts, then their own similarly trained forces in the IRGC would be able to perform even more spectacularly. The chaos could be multiplied if accompanied by simultaneous escalations against U.S. forces in Iraq and against Israel.
Furthermore, Iran believes it has a better organized and more loyal military than Saddam had in 2003 and that its nuclear and vital command-and-control facilities are considered more challenging targets than Saddam’s were.
The Tehran regime has chosen to set itself on a crash course with the rest of the world. They know war is coming and they hope they can escape with minimal damage to the regime.
A dictator’s mentality sees anything else as expendable.