Last Updated: Tue Oct 09, 2012 10:24 am (KSA) 07:24 am (GMT)

Iranian regime may bite first when cornered

Linda S. Heard

Israel is convinced the sophisticated unmanned surveillance vehicle that encroached upon Israel’s airspace from the Mediterranean was deployed by either Hezbollah or an Islamic Jihad cell in Gaza at the behest of Iran to gather aerial intelligence on Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona. If so, the incident not only signifies a serious escalation of tensions, the fact that it succeeded in continuing its journey for 30 minutes before it was shot down near Hebron exposes the fallibility of Israel’s air defenses. Moreover, it serves to indicate that Tehran is adopting a more belligerent posture in response to constant Israeli threats.

Despite months of training for such an eventuality, the IAF was taken by surprise. The myth of Israel’s military invincibility has taken a dent just as it did in 2006 when the IDF proved no match for Hezbollah’s guerrilla warfare tactics in southern Lebanon. Israel is excusing the time lapse saying it attempted to electronically bring down the drone intact in order to study its capabilities. But that doesn’t wash when, as far as anyone knew, it could have been a flying bomb. For Israel, this surprise illustration of how far Iranian aerial technology has advanced has been a wake-up call. Conversely, the confidence of the Iranian leadership has received a major psychological boost.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be careful what he wishes for. For years he’s been urging the US to either join with Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear sites or give Tel Aviv a green light to go it alone to preempt the Iranians gaining a nuclear weapons capability, but, unfortunately for him neither President Bush nor President Obama were willing to comply. Indeed, Obama recently dismissed Netanyahu’s nagging as “noise”, adding he will do what’s right for the American people. However, there may soon come a day when "if, how and when" will be out of both men’s hands.

Netanyahu may think he has the monopoly on making threats and drawing-up war plans with impunity, as though his target was an inanimate object, but he isn’t the only one with “red lines”. Until fairly recently, Iranian officials have almost laughingly written off any possibility that Israel would be foolish enough to attack, in public at least. Nevertheless, they have warned that any strike on their soil would elicit massive retaliation on US bases in the region. And, of course, there were the infamous threats to close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping and turn Gulf oil fields into blazing infernos.

In August, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged that “the nations of the region will soon finish off the usurper Zionists in the Palestinian land” to allow for a new Middle East free of US and Zionist influence. That kind of rhetoric could easily be ignored as par for the course in the Israeli-Iranian war of words but it should be noted that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah maintained a similar theme on Quds Day vowing to “turn the lives of hundreds of thousands of Zionists into a living hell,” to protect the Lebanese people.

It’s true that Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah use fiery language to appeal to their respective bases, but a message from Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier-general in the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard Corps indicates a seismic shift in Iran’s stance. “Iran will not start any war, but it could launch a pre-emptive strike if it was sure that the enemies are putting the final touches to attack it,” he said.

In fact, Iran has been under attack for some time, both covertly and overtly.

At least three of the country’s nuclear scientists have been assassinated. Ahmadinejad blamed the IAEA for publishing their names. There have been numerous cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites, offshore oil industry platforms, communication companies and other industries for which Iran ‘credits’ Israel and the US. Then last month, the head of Iran’s Atomic Agency Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, a nuclear scientist, who survived an assassination attempt in 2010, shocked delegates attending an IAEA conference. “Terrorists and saboteurs” may have infiltrated the international nuclear watchdog, he said, citing a power line explosion feeding the Fordo nuclear plant’s centrifuges, occurring just hours before IAEA inspectors requested permission to inspect the site.

The question is whether Iran is being pushed to its limits and just what those limits could be? After all, even the most patient peace-loving man will react violently if his neighbor persists in hurling invective over the fence, menacingly waves a baseball bat in front in the faces of his wife and kids, poisons his dog and sets fire to his flower garden. I don’t think anyone seriously believes that Iran wants outright war; the international consensus is that it is in the final stages of building a nuclear bomb for deterrent purposes and has ambitions to dominate the region, ideologically, militarily and geo-politically. The thinking goes that the ruling mullahs are rational. That may be so, but will they be so ‘rational’ once their backs are up against the wall both externally and internally.

US-led economic, trade, banking and military sanctions against Iran are having a devastating impact on the country’s economy and currency that has depreciated by 71.4 percent since July 2010 and fallen by as much as 40 percent against the dollar since the beginning of this month. An article in the Washington Post headed “Public Ire, one goal of Iran sanctions, US official says” originally reported that a US intelligence official had described regime collapse as a goal of US sanctions against Iran. (The article was later amended to read “The Obama administration sees economic sanctions against Iran as building public discontent that will help compel the government to abandon an alleged nuclear weapons program.)

I suspect the first version of the piece was closer to the truth. And if sanctions are geared toward forcing regime change they may be working. Iran’s business community is incensed at the “economic mismanagement” of their leadership and ordinary Iranians are dismayed by their diminished purchasing power and the shrinking in value of their savings, so much so that they have taken to the streets in protest. Should those who constitute the country’s economic backbone decide to turn against the regime and join hands with the growing poor to launch a serious revolt on the lines of 1979, Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs could opt to rally the population in their favor by deciding that the most rational method of doing just that would be war. If there ever comes a time when all bets are against them, an all or nothing first strike on Israel might be a temptation too convenient to resist.

The writer is a columnist on the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on Oct. 9, 2012

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