The IDF is ready to move against Iran the minute it receives the green light," declared IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz in an interview broadcast on Israel's 64th Independence Day. "The Iranians are determined to build a nuclear weapon while they continue to dupe the international community," Minister of Defense Ehud Barak added the following day.
Israel's leaders face a series of existential questions: should Israel attack Iran or pursue the diplomatic track? When, if ever, is the right time to launch an attack? How should it be executed? How will Iran's leaders react to an attack on their nuclear facilities?
The Day After
The most likely day-after scenario, as the international media sees it, is a devastating Iranian response based mainly, though not entirely, on its long-range missile arsenal. This attack would be coupled with terrorist strikes against Jewish and Israeli targets abroad, and backed by Hezbollah – Iran’s proxy in Lebanon.
On the international front, Iran could wreak havoc on the global economy through fluctuations in oil prices, even though this could also ultimately harm Iran (it is unclear whether Iran or the West would suffer more in an oil war).
Iran could respond with a four-way campaign with long-ranged counter-fire against Israel, terror activity on Israel's borders, attacks on Israelis and Jews overseas, and a limited conflict in the north of Israel.
Israel is fully aware of the implications of the day after, but senior political-security figures have increasingly alleged that Iran's response capabilities are limited due to international constraints and its distance from Israel. From our perspective, Israel could withstand an Iranian retaliation, just as it has withstood missile attacks in the past.
In his Independence Day speech, the chief of staff threw the proverbial ball into the political decision-makers' court, taking careful aim at the prime minister and minister of defense. The question is whether Israel is up to the challenge of a day-after scenario that is different from the one the media projects.
If Israel initiates a military strike and Iran responds, Israel will face a security challenge of a magnitude that it has never experienced. It will be the first time in history that Israel faces a non-Arab state with an entirely different culture, mentality, and historical legacy. The same is true for the Iranians – for the first time they will be confronting Israel and the West.
Furthermore, Israel has never carried out a military attack against a state on the brink of nuclear capability. An attack against Iran would be far different than the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq or the air strike against the reactor in Syria (attributed to Israel). For Israel, the element of surprise is already gone, which in effect, has already enabled the enemy to carry out a series of steps. These steps range from instilling a state of awareness into their nation, political-strategic maneuvering, and preparations for both an offensive and defensive military response.
Presenting a Regional Objective
When we examine the rationale behind an Iranian response, we should assume that the regime in Tehran will make every effort to cause the "Zionist entity" such severe damage that it would restore the Islamic Republic to the lofty position of a regional superpower. Iran's choice of targets and its method of attack will be a regional and international display of Iranian strategy and military might. Iran cannot allow the campaign to end with it appearing ruined and humiliated. Another Iranian goal will be to safeguard its nuclear project so that it can quickly resume operations if damaged.
An Iranian strike would probably be directed against Israel's population centers, since the Iranians believe that Israel would be hard-pressed to cope with a protracted campaign of attrition that weakens the home front.
Upon examining these goals against the scenario established by the media, we can see that the scenario the media portrays would not attain Iran’s objectives. What then is the modus operandi that Iran will choose to meet its goals?
A Different Kind of Society
To understand how the Iranian leadership operates, we must go back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Despite the extreme differences between that war and a possible Israeli-Iranian confrontation, it would be worthwhile to look at the way the Ayatollah regime, still in its infancy, waged its first war.
At the time, following a break in relations with the US, the Iranian regime was isolated and bereft of superpower backing. Iraq received lavish military assistance from the Soviet Union, while Europe exerted pressure on Iran for disrupting the flow of oil caused by the war. During the long and bitter conflict, Iran's Republican Guards displayed a high degree of patience, endurance, and determination. The nation proved that it could weather massive attacks from unconventional weapons (poisonous gas) and retain its trust in its leadership. This is the heritage that Khomeini bequeathed to the Iranian people: fighting and winning against all odds.
Those that believe Iran’s geographical distance from Israel will limit the Iranian response (the Iranians will mainly engage in long-range counter fire) fail to take into account the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis that enables Iran to bridge great distances. Republican Guard ground forces could be deployed along Israel's northern border and even engage the IDF in a protracted guerilla campaign.
On the Frontlines
Israel must also take into account Hezbollah's role in such a scenario, since Israel could be tested in an unprecedented event.
For the first time, Hezbollah would be completely subordinate to Tehran's leadership and the Iranian military command even though it is a Lebanese organization supported by the country's Shiite population. In an Israeli-Iranian war, Hezbollah would take orders from Iran in its first and perhaps only real opportunity to repay the enormous debt that it owes to Iran for building up its military strength.
Another possibility is that Iran could launch a preemptive strike and place responsibility on Hezbollah, since Tehran has no interest in becoming entangled in hostilities prior to an Israeli attack.
After an Israeli strike, the scope of Hezbollah’s rocket fire into Israel's depth could parallel the developments in the fighting between Israel and Iran. Israel should not be surprised if this time the rocket and missile fire is entirely different from the past. Instead of gradual escalation at the outset, Hezbollah could unleash a massive missile barrage into the heart of Tel Aviv.
Not Today or in a Few Days
Israel has to proceed with great caution in light of Iran’s policy and culture. A long and bitter guerilla struggle may ensue, one that could last for a year or a number of years against Iranian combat units on Israel's northern border.
These scenarios are not the product of an imagination run wild, but logical directions that Iran could take as it aspires to realize its goal to become a regional superpower.