July 1, 2008

NIAC Memo: Beneath Bravado, Iran Prepares for US Attack

Tehran has always been quite strident in its response to the possibility of US or Israeli attack. It has either identified reports of imminent attack as part and parcel of “psychological warfare” to intimidate the Iranian leadership into accepting restrictions on its nuclear program – in the words of Iran’s well-known hard-line editor of Kayhan daily, Hossein Shariatmadari, to make Iran “commit suicide out of the fear of death.” Or, it has bluntly asserted Iran’s capability to respond to military attacks in ways that would harm the initiators of such attacks.

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But the 28 June 2008 Jam-e Jam daily interview with General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC), is noteworthy not because of his confirmation of Tehran’s determination to react to attacks but for the details he reveals regarding the current state of thinking in Tehran about the US and Israeli capabilities, and Iran’s assessment and preparation for such an attack.

The wire services have generally picked up Jafari’s counter-threats regarding what Iran would do in case of an attack (including missile attacks against Israel, choking off the Hormuz Straight, and reliance on ideological assets throughout the Middle East). Still quite a bit of nuance has been left out regarding his thinking.

Foremost are his thoughts about the possibility of US or Israeli attack. On this issue, Jafari deviates from the usual pronouncements and suggests that the next few months are indeed dangerous months in which the threat of military action has been enhanced by the “impasse” facing the United States. This is how he explains it:

“The analysis of political, security, and defense experts is that that the United States is in a special situation and, because of this, it is trying to implement its threats. If the conditions are really there and it finds an opportunity and has confidence that its action will at least have a percentage of success, it will implement its threat… The limited amount of time that Bush has until the end of his presidency and also the Republican lack of hope regarding the victory of their candidate have created conditions that have led us at present to take the possibility of a military attack in comparison to other junctures more seriously. Of course, I don’t want to say that military action is certain. But in comparison to the past, it seems that the enemy sees one of the ways of exiting the impasse facing it to be military action.”

The focus on political conditions in the United States is further highlighted in Jafari’s rejection of Israel as the source of military action: “We believe that Israel is much smaller to be able to take action against the Islamic Republic alone. Hence, the axis of threats is the United States. However, this country [the U.S.] will undoubtedly benefit from the Zionist regime’s support.” He further states that this same point – that the US cannot attack Iran without Israeli support – “because of the Zionist regime very high vulnerabilities’ is a deterrent factor.”

The point made is that Iran perceives the difficulties of concealing the Israeli support for the US action combined with Israel’s vulnerabilities – both because of its lack of strategic depth as well as “Iran’s external capabilities” in harming its interests – as important deterrent to US military action against Iran along with other deterrents, including the U.S.’ own particular vulnerability caused by the extensive presence of its forces in the region.

But if that action does come, according to Jafari, then Iran’s response will be swift: “We cannot reveal the kind of action we will take. But it can be said that we see our time frame for response to be very short. This is because we see the extent of our enemy’s action to be limited and this limited extent forces us in a short period of time to give swift, decisive, and blunt responses so that they will have impact.” He later adds “unimaginable” to the list of adjectives describing the response.

Bravado and bluster aside, the point made by Jafari brings into question conclusions drawn in a recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on the basis of an examination of past experiences that Tehran “recognizes that at times its interests are best served by restraint, although it will react when circumstances permit,” and it “has not always reacted swiftly to foreign attacks to assuage nationalist passions -and it has sometimes not reacted at all.” When it has responded, the report further concludes “its responses have sometimes been ill-conceived and ill-timed from the point of view of Iranian interests but at other times on terms favorable to Tehran (e.g., relying on a delayed asymmetric response in a distant theater of operations, using proxies or terrorist surrogates.”

Jafari is explicit in this interview that Iran will respond immediately and this immediate and blunt response against Israel and the United States – presumably implying the subsequent possibility of immediate escalation and further commitment on the part of American forces – must be taken into account in the American calculations of a limited aerial strike against nuclear facilities and/or IRGC facilities.

In short, Jafari is very clear that Tehran is ready to match the Bush Administration’s words and deeds if need arises, even at a time when the Iranian government is taking the possibility of a military attack more seriously than before. This is truly a frightening dynamic for both countries as well as for Israel and the region as a whole.

While some may explain away the US invasion of Iraq as a tragic and strategic mistake or miscalculation, nothing short of madness can account for an attack on Iran even if political expediency turns out to be the reason for some to contemplate the attack.

Dr. Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i.




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