01 June 2012
In his most recent speech at the annual AIPAC conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to talk about what Israel will or will not do, but proceeded to focus on the consequences of not attacking Iran. But as the war drums echo between Tel Aviv, Washington DC, and Tehran, much of the discourse has focused on the prudence of an Israeli strike in lieu of its own capabilities and likelihood of “success”, and not the thorny path that one needs to tread in an attempt to stunt Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. While the former perspective has its utility, the reality is that any confrontation between Iran and Israel promises to be clumsy, messy, and a trigger for (more) sustained regional instability. Here we attempt to list the constituent elements of this potentially chaotic conflict, with a focus on what Iran brings to the turmoil through its own capabilities, its people, and its non-state proxies.
Iran and its Capabilities
The role of Iran’s conventional forces seems to pose only a minor threat in case of an Israeli or U.S. onslaught. Moreover, sanctions have hindered its ability to acquire arms and its forces are heavily dependent on domestic production. Nevertheless, Iran’s defensive capabilities, while not of the highest caliber, remain formidable, as it has been forced to change and adapt to the superiority of U.S. forces in the Gulf.
The result has been a quantitative shift in the structure of its forces and the development of new asymmetric capabilities that, in the Gulf, has starved potential opponents of large military targets and relies primarily on small mobile attack crafts, missiles and swarm tactics. Iran’s large conventional ballistic missile force also has the ability to threaten U.S. bases in the region, Israel, and other regional U.S. allies. Additionally, while conventional warheads pose a threat, it is feared that these missiles could be fitted with non-conventional payloads, whereby posing a far greater potential threat.
Clearly Iran’s reliance on asymmetric tactics for its conventional forces and ballistic missiles for its offensive capabilities reflects an armed force organized to function defensively and as a deterrent. Iran’s aerial defense forces too have opted for a strategy that situates the bulk of their surface to air missiles in the vicinity of strategic points, including the infamous nuclear sites – which when combined with the fact that some of them are underground and near population centers, would make any attack very difficult and risky, and potentially cause politically-volatile collateral damage. While it has been speculated that a reprisal by Iran would be limited, there remains a good chance that their conventional forces would be able to strike back by disrupting the flow of energy in the Gulf, by striking U.S. or Israeli interests abroad and using missiles to strike within Israel.
Iran and its Proxies: Hezbollah
Iran’s primary proxy ally is the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, which, for many, is sure to play a critical role in case of an Iranian confrontation with Israel or the U.S. Tactical prudence for some dictates that dealing with Hezbollah now would be preferable than when backed by a nuclear Iran. However, confronting the group proved to be quite a challenge for the Israelis during the 2006 war when Hezbollah managed to bombard Israel with rockets and missiles for the duration of the hostilities. While intense training in new tactics has been underway in Israel to avoid a repeat of 2006, it is likely that Hezbollah has new tricks up its sleeves as well, and reports indicate that the group now has stockpiles of rockets and missiles far exceeding the numbers of 2006.
Additionally, Hezbollah is more than just a proxy. Some have seen the announcement by the organization’s Secretary General, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, that “the Iranian leadership will not ask Hezbollah to do anything” as a sign that Hezbollah has its own interests that weigh heavier than Iran’s. While that may be true, it seems to underestimate the relationship between the two parties. Iran’s efforts to re-arm Hezbollah after the 2006 war was done at great expense, so to think that such an endeavor does not come with a price tag would be naive.
In his speech Nasrallah further emphasized that in the case of an attack on Iran “we will sit, think, and decide what we will do”, whereby stressing its autonomy for its local detractors while insinuating that any participation in retaliatory actions should be seen as an act of free will. Nevertheless, to strike at Israel might be seen by the group as an opportunity that should not be missed, in that central to Hezbollah’s legitimacy is its credentials as a resistance organization.
Iran and its Proxies: Hamas
Hamas’ role in this conflict would be far more checkered compared to Hezbollah, especially in view of a politically tumultuous regional and local landscape. While the group has until recently been supported by Shia Iran and based in Syria (a close ally of Tehran), Hamas’ move out of Damascus was seen by some as a public transition out of the “Crescent of Resistance”. In an interview with NPR in Gaza, Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef noted that owing to the Arab revolution it would be politically prudent for Hamas to resort to nonviolent forms of protest in order to avoid Israeli reprisal. While this bodes well for Israel, Hamas in recent months has displayed a significant level of ambiguity and heterogeneity in its position in an ever-changing Middle East. Also speaking to NPR but sticking to the hard-line stance, Mahmoud Zahar, a founder of the group insisted on Hamas’ continued commitment to being a liberation organization. Some have also speculated that in the face of an apparent moderation in the group’s political stance led by Khaled Meshaal, Hamas may see radical groups insistent on continuing a violent struggle splintering off, much like Islamic Jihad.
Nevertheless, Hamas remains a possible “front” of the conflict that Israel needs to consider. Its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigade boasts of significant stockpiles of small arms and antitank weapons. In addition, Israeli sources suspect the group of having anti-aircraft missiles and rockets, much of which was seized during Hamas’ take-over of Gaza from Fatah. But more importantly, as Hamas struggles to protect its monopoly over the “resistance” in Gaza – now seemingly being usurped by Islamic Jihad – this may be the group’s best opportunity to reaffirm the credentials that gave it sweeping electoral legitimacy in 2006. Moreover, unlike earlier confrontations with Israel, this time around Gaza can expect divided attention from the Jewish state (with Iran and Hezbollah as active war fronts), and even symbolic strikes by Hamas could elevate its resistance portfolio among disgruntled Palestinians.Iran and its People
A final “front” in the potential conflict that is often ignored is Iranian society. While battered by repressive monarchs, autocratic regimes, and foreign interventions, Iranians have through it all continued to have immense pride and, more critically, a sense of inherent sovereignty that when encroached upon has the ability to mobilize the people – even when the “intruder” seems to pose an unassailable “threat”. Still in the shadow of the Iran-Iraq war, the streets of Tehran are plastered with pictures of the shaheed (martyrs) from the devastating conflict, and in a way celebrate suffering when faced with the oppressor.
The same applies for the adherents of the “Green Movement”. While the West celebrated the first glimmer of hope and normalcy since 1979 that they saw in the opposition, the “Greens” cannot be expected to be a natural ally of the U.S. or Israel in case the latter attacks Iran. Talking to members of the opposition a year after the 2009 elections, most remained vehemently committed to the core values of the Islamic Revolution, especially crediting it for ensuring Persian sovereignty and self-reliance. It this specific value that the Iranian society would mobilize to protect in case of an impending strike by Israel. It would not only be easy for the regime to rally, like before, the people and would-be martyrs around its political project and the war, thus ensuring its longevity, but also to demoralize and de-legitimize the opposition as simply Israeli or American lackeys.
Thus what we have collated are simple considerations that must be accounted for when contemplating a strike on Iran. Thinking of the Islamic Republic in the classical terms of interstate warfare would be wrong. Iran’s capabilities are nowhere near as sophisticated as their opponents. However, Iran’s options are more in line with that of irregular warfare, which would then facilitate retaliation that is unconventional and multifaceted.
Furthermore, Israel needs to draw significant lessons from its 2006 confrontation with Hezbollah. Narrowly defining its objectives for a strike on Iran, namely the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities, sets down too limited a parameter for success. This means that anything short of a complete annihilation of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, like Israel’s failure to destroy Hezbollah, irrespective of the human and material casualties inflicted, would spell the failure of the Jewish state and a triumph of the “resistance” led by Iran.
Salem B. S. Dandan and Somdeep Sen are PhD fellows in the COMER (Copenhagen Middle East Research) project, at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.
Photo by looking4poetry (cc).
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.