Written by Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Since the publication of the November 2011 IAEA report, which explicitly spotlights Iran's plans to build nuclear weapons, senior figures of the Iranian regime and the state-run media have begun to use threatening, defiant, and sometimes contemptuous language toward Israel and the United States.
From Iran's standpoint, an ongoing, head-on confrontation with the U.S. and Israel would serve its purposes in the region and build its image as a key actor that stands firm against the West and provides an alternative agenda to reshape the Middle East. Hence, compromise has almost ceased to be an option for Iran.
The current round of the conflict between Iran and the United States and Israel over Iran's (military) nuclear program should be seen in a much wider context, one that centers on shaping a new landscape in the Middle East. Iran views itself as "the next big thing" in the region and behaves accordingly-at the moment with no significant challenge or response from the United States and the West.
If in the past Iran held clandestine contacts with Islamic movements, mainly from North African Arab states, on Sudanese soil (such as Ennadha, which has now won the Tunisian elections), it can now openly boost its influence in countries where the "U.S.-supported dictators" have fallen.
Iran no longer fears openly acknowledging that it has built capabilities for reacting to an attack-including the Palestinian organizations in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon-and depicts them as part of its defensive strategy and response in case of a confrontation with Israel and the United States.
At home, the growing strength of the Revolutionary Guards enables them to increasingly influence foreign policy and mainly to export the revolution in ways not seen in the past. The top commanders of its elite Quds Force are emerging from the shadows and will have a key role in the future struggle against the U.S. and its remaining allies in the region, particularly Israel. Iran, as its president said, is preparing for the "final confrontation."
The animated talk in Israel and the West about a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is naturally arousing great interest in Iran. Initially, the Iranian leadership chose not to react and made only minor statements about this discourse. But since the publication of the November 2011 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),1 which spotlights the military dimension of Iran's nuclear program and its plans to build nuclear weapons, senior figures of the regime and the state-run media have begun to use threatening, defiant, and sometimes contemptuous language toward Israel, the United States, and IAEA Chairman Yukiya Amano, who was described by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "America's lackey" and as having "no authority of his own."2 Iran's ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh declared: "This report is unbalanced, unprofessional, and prepared with political motivation and under political pressure mostly by the United States...this is in fact a prime historical mistake."3 Concurrently, Iranian spokesmen and commentators emphasize Iran's power, its capability to react "decisively" (including along Israel's borders), and its ability to withstand both sanctions and a military offensive.
Of all the Iranian statements, one made by Ahmadinejad stands out. During a meeting with supporters, he said, "the West is mobilizing all its forces to finish the job because it is clear as day that NATO is yearning to act against Iran." He added in an apocalyptic-messianic spirit that the conditions taking shape in the region are not normal (a hint at the Imam Mahdi),4 and that "we are nearing the point of final confrontation." Such a confrontation, he explained, will not necessarily be military and could take a political or other form. Ahmadinejad stressed that Iran is now almost at the apex of its power, but could, if it does not demonstrate resolve, absorb a blow from which it will not recover for at least five hundred years. He also warned that an attack on Syria by NATO would cause a regional explosion.5
Iran is not only observing the crisis brought on by the IAEA report but also the changing Middle East and its own role in it. On November 4, Iran honored the anniversary of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran (right in the midst of the debate on the possibility of a Western attack). Indeed, Iran views the upheaval in the Middle East and the growing Islamic trends (with Tunisia as an example) as further proof of the (divine) justice of its path. These are added to a series of "glorious" achievements, as Iran sees it, over the course of more than a decade-the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, the Second Intifada, the wars in Afghanistan (the harsh blow to the Taliban) and Iraq (the fall of Saddam), the Second Lebanon War, and Israel's 2009 Gaza operation.
From Iran's standpoint, a head-on confrontation with the United States and Israel would serve its purposes in the region and build its image as an actor that stands firm against the Western powers and does not submit to pressure. If there still was any chance of Tehran agreeing to concessions in its sporadic talks with the West about its nuclear program, the Middle Eastern turmoil has now made a compromise all but impossible. Indeed, given the harsh IAEA report, more critical than in the past and providing more detail on the military aspects of the nuclear program, compromise has almost ceased to be an option for Iran, which is deliberately ramping up its defiance in light of Middle Eastern and world developments.
Tehran is also encouraged by the positions of Russia and China, which are granting it (along with its client Syria) immunity against any stringent Security Council sanctions. Specifically, Iran is encouraged about its ability to withstand sanctions by Russia's statements since the IAEA report's publication6 (which have made much mention of Iran's reaction to the report). So Iran has been exuding confidence-sometimes verging on hubris-and is prepared to take risks, even to the point of trying to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and thereby moving the Middle Eastern playing field to Washington itself.
An interview that Ahmadinejad gave in early November to the Egyptian paper Al-Akhbar accurately reflects Iran's interpretation of recent Middle Eastern developments and the threats it faces. The United States, Ahmadinejad asserts, is indeed looking to attack Iran, as was President Bush, but what a huge difference there is between Bush's fate and the status Iran enjoys today.... Iran is becoming a more and more advanced country and therefore can counterbalance and contend with the global powers....The Zionist entity and the West, and especially the United States, fear Iran's power and (growing) role and so are trying to enlist the world for a battle to contain and reduce its power and role....They must know that Iran will not allow such a development.
The Iranian president claims further that the United States aims to safeguard the "Zionist entity," but will fail in that endeavor because this entity has no place in the Middle East and is destined for extinction. If, Ahmadinejad suggests, the peoples of the region were to hold a referendum on the Zionist entity's existence among them, it is clear what the results would be. "This entity can be compared to a kidney transplanted into a body that has rejected it...it has no place in the region and the countries will soon get rid of it and expel it from the region...it will collapse and its end will be near."7
Iran continues to project military, political, and economic power in the region, and sees the Israeli and American focus on possibly attacking it as aimed at undermining its rising status in the changing Middle East-and also as manifesting the West's loss of its traditional mainstays of power in the region. Iranian propaganda claims that the talk about attacking it is not serious "because no such option really exists," and that the real aim of such talk is only to encourage tougher sanctions-with poor chances of success given Russia and China's position.
In an editorial that analyzes the discourse surrounding an attack on Iran (quoting Ha'aretz, The Guardian, and President Shimon Peres), Iran's conservative Mehr news agency assessed that "the Israelis are trying to set the stage for the imposition of stricter sanctions on Iran." Mehr observed: "Over the past few days, Western media outlets have created brouhaha about the possibility that the Zionist regime may make a unilateral military strike against Iran." The article noted, "Israel recently test-fired a ballistic missile, purportedly capable of reaching Iran," and that "the Israeli military, which is usually secretive about its activities, allowed media people to report on the event."
The editorial concludes by saying, "it is clear that a military attack on Iran cannot be a viable option for Israel" and offers several reasons for this:
So, what is the reason behind the new political game directed at Iran?
It seems that the Israelis are trying to set the stage for the imposition of stricter sanctions on Iran, but the biggest obstacle is the fact that Russia, China, and some members of the European Union are strongly opposed to new sanctions.
All this rhetoric about war is being used to compel these countries to stop opposing the moves to impose new United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran, which they prefer to the outbreak of a dangerous war, which could have serious repercussions for the world.8
In a similar spirit, Esmaeil Kowsari, deputy chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Majlis, asserts that recent threats made by officials of the U.S. and the Zionist regime are a political and military bluff. The Zionist regime and the U.S. are in no position to attack Iran....The U.S. and the Zionist regime are gripped by an intense fear and great concern in dealing with developments in the region and the world. And after losing their strongholds and illegitimate interests in regional countries, they are trying to extricate themselves from this situation.9
Amid the Israeli media campaign about a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, commentators in Iran's leading conservative outlets have called on the country's leaders to adopt an active diplomacy to counter it. Behind this "murky" campaign, they claim, stands Israel's fear that Middle Eastern developments have removed the nuclear issue from the Western agenda and that the tide is not in Israel's favor. Thus, these commentators contend, Israel is using a tactic of trying to scare the world and draw attention to the nuclear issue, hoping thereby to increase the pressure on Russia and China to support further Security Council sanctions. This, in these pundits' view, is primarily psychological warfare by Israel and the West and does not stem from a real intention to attack Iran.
They argue, then, that Iran needs to take two clear stances toward the world. First, it should emphasize that no military attack on its nuclear facilities will benefit the attackers because these sites are dispersed and underground. Second, it should declare that if there is an attack, even if it fails to damage these facilities, it will be considered an act of aggression and a violation of international conventions, and therefore Iran will quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and no longer be obligated to the IAEA or allow the presence of nuclear inspectors. According to the commentators, such a threat would have a great impact. And to further neutralize the psychological warfare, Iran should espouse an active diplomacy and convey its positions to the other states such as Russia and China.10 Other commentators have suggested putting the Russian step-by-step initiative on the agenda.11
Senior Iranian military officials, clerics, and commentators have adopted threatening language, warning that Iran will react with great severity to any attack on it.
Particularly notable are the tough statements of Sadollah Zarei of Kayhan newspaper, which reflects the outlook of the leader of Iran. Zarei claims it is very unlikely that Israel has any plan to attack Iran or even to take part in a larger attack; the regional conditions and Israel's capabilities do not allow it. "Iran is too great for the Zionist regime to threaten it." Four regular Iranian missiles, Zarei asserts, will cause a million Zionists to become refugees, while even if Israel fires a hundred missiles at Iran not even a few houses will be demolished. He stresses that Iran's power and ballistic-missile capability can cause a total Israeli defeat and adds: "Iranian missile fire on Israel will not involve any expenditures from the national budget, because Iran sells missiles in thirty-five countries of the world and builds its operational missiles from the profits of these sales. Hence, with very little money it will be possible to destroy Tel Aviv and the occupied lands." 19
To sum up, the current round of the conflict between Iran and the United States and Israel over Iran's nuclear program should be seen as another battle in a much wider campaign, one that centers on shaping a new landscape in a Middle East that is still in upheaval. Iran views itself as "the next big thing" in the region and behaves accordingly-at the moment with no significant response from the United States and the West. The November 2011 IAEA report will probably temporarily increase the pressure on Tehran and lead to limited measures against it. It appears that ultimately, however, the unhurried approach of the international system, though it certainly wants to leverage the IAEA report for "crippling" sanctions (mainly on Iran's banking and energy sectors) and for another round of talks with Iran (the Russian proposal?), will again be stymied by Russia and China, which will act to soften any measures.
Given its assessment of the international and regional balance of power, Iran's audacity is growing even in areas distant from the Middle East (as revealed in its recruitment of a Mexican drug cartel for the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador). In the Middle East itself, Iran's perception is that the dams have burst. If in the past it held clandestine contacts with Islamic movements on Sudanese soil (such as Ennadha, which has now won the Tunisian elections), it can now openly boost its influence in countries where the "U.S.-supported dictators" have fallen. Iran no longer fears openly acknowledging that it has built capabilities for reacting to an attack-including the Palestinian organizations in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon-and depicts them as part of its defensive strategy and response in case of a confrontation with Israel and the United States.
Standing up to the United States and Israel on the nuclear issue well serves Iranian interests in the Arab street, which was and remains hostile toward those two countries. As Islam regains its hold over the Middle East, after years in which it was repressed by the Arab regimes, Iran's confidence grows that it can determine the new power equations in the region and drive the United States out of it-as well as Israel.
At home, the growing strength of the Revolutionary Guards-who play a central role with respect to both domestic politics and the Iranian nuclear program, its protection, survivability, and the missiles that are eventually supposed to carry nuclear warheads-enables them to increasingly influence foreign policy and to export the revolution more boldly and in ways not seen in the past. Indeed, recently Kayhan made an extraordinary admission that testifies to Iran's self-confidence perhaps more than anything else. It stated that the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards has already been clashing for some time with U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere:
The Quds Force is more than an active operational force; it is an ideology that does not recognize borders, a worldview whose tenets and beliefs directly conflict with Western culture....Since conquering Iraq and Afghanistan and entering the region, the United States has experienced more than ever the taste of conflict with the Quds Force as profoundly and tangibly as possible. America's appreciation of Iran's regional power is based mainly, and perhaps exclusively, on the experience of clashing with the Quds Force (emphasis added).20
Asr-e Iran also writes openly about the Quds Force's active presence in Iraq, and its contribution to bolstering Iran's status, to the detriment of Saudi Arabia.21
In light of the Quds Force's involvement in planning the putative hit on the Saudi ambassador in Washington, there have been American suggestions to assassinate senior Quds Force figures including its commander, Kassem Suleimani. This has sparked a wave of adulation for the force and its leaders in the Iranian media; they are seen as playing, and as destined to play, a key role in the struggle against the United States and Israel. Suleimani's name was also recently mentioned as a candidate for the next president of Iran (in 2013). The previous commander of the Quds Force, Ahmad Vahidi, is now defense minister. Iran indeed views itself as prepared for a final confrontation.
4. Part of the revolutionary leadership believes that the imminent return of the Twelfth Iman-as the Mahdi-can and should be accelerated by triggering global chaos. See Dore Gold, "The Diplomatic Implications of the Growing Iranian Threat," in Iran's Race for Regional Supremacy: Strategic Implications for the Middle East (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2008), p. 20.
10. http://www.irdiplomacy.ir/fa/news/58/bodyView/17696/%D8%AF%DB%8C%D9%BE%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B3%DB%8C.%D9%85%D8%A7.%D8%A8%D8%A7 %DB%8C%D8%AF.%D9%81%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%84.%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%AF.html.
11. http://www.khabaronline.ir/print/182230/%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88-%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%B1%DB%8C%DA%A9%D8%A7-%D8%AA%D8 %AD%D8%B1%DB%8C%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%A2%DA%98%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B3-%D8%A8%DB%8C%D9 %86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%258.
* * *
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.