Over the last few weeks there has been an unusual awakening among the Iranian public, which takes the form of massive and particularly violent demonstrations in protest against the regime. The catalyst for these events was the increase in fuel prices, but obviously, the root cause is deeper. The regime took extreme and aggressive measures and seems to have successfully suppressed this social unrest, but nevertheless, for the first time in years, it would seem that there is a real concern among the ruling elite in Iran that the situation could deteriorate to the point of loss of control.
The Iranian regime wishes to highlight the direct connection between the US sanctions and the economic plight of the country. The regime "paints" a picture in which the enemy, and the party responsible for the dire circumstances of the Iranians, is the USA, thereby diverting the public rage toward the West. Although this picture is partly correct, the fact that the public outcry is aimed at the regime rather than at the Americans is a substantial change. Admittedly, the sanctions were imposed on the Iranians owing to their nuclear program, but as far as the Iranian public is concerned, the economic circumstances on the ground are attributed mainly to the failed policy of the Ayatollah regime.
Apparently, the public in Iran is in dispute with its leaders regarding Iran's future. While the leadership assigns crucial importance to the nuclear program, the spreading of radical Islam and advancing the conflict with Israel, the public demands that the main efforts be invested in Iran itself. This fact is critically significant, as it substantially undermines the regime's ability to rally public support for its preferences and to channel the rage and frustration of the public toward the historic enemy – "The Great Satan and the Little Satan."
Initiating a Limited Confrontation
Facing the increasing domestic threat, the Iranian leadership wishes to take emergency, possibly even desperate steps to regain public support for the campaign against the USA and Israel. Perhaps the only (and somewhat surprising) way to accomplish this objective is by initiating provocations that would lead to a limited military strike against Iran. Then, the Iranian leadership would be able to employ its propaganda system and rally the Iranian public, once again, against the enemy wishing to destroy the proud Iranian people.
In recent months, Iran has initiated almost every possible act to force the West into a military response. The takeover of the British tanker, the shooting-down of the US drone and the unprecedented attack against the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia were all intended, apparently, to convey only one message: "Come and attack us."
Paradoxically, however, the lack of response, which commentators in the West and in Israel regarded as weakness on the part of the USA and Saudi Arabia, has eventually achieved the opposite result – denying the regime the ability to rally the support of the Iranian public and further undermining the current public support for the regime.
A Second Round is Imminent
Of all things, it is the present reality, which has, in fact, stood at the basis of the economic campaign against Iran, which embodies the risks. The primary risk is the nature of the Iranian response to the emerging reality. Presumably, the Iranians will make an additional effort, against the background of the domestic situation in Iran, to force the USA, and possibly Saudi Arabia as well, into a limited military confrontation. We are approaching a critical point where the sanctions and the military campaign might converge.
In the present situation, the decision makers in the USA and in Israel should conduct themselves intelligently vis-à-vis Iran. The effort intended to insert a wedge between the Iranian people and the regime in Tehran should continue. This may be accomplished by maintaining the sanctions imposed on the leading figures of the regime, but at this point, the main thing is to see to it that the sanctions are strictly enforced.
Additionally, the question of whether to get involved in a campaign against Iran, however limited, should be considered very carefully, pursuant to repeated provocations that should be expected to occur in the near future. The USA and Israel should try and make a strategic decision as to whether they should endeavor to overthrow the regime in Iran or get it to the negotiating table. This decision is critical to the continued economic campaign against Iran.
Dr. Udi Levi is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy & Security (JISS); he had served in various positions at the Prime Minister's Office and the National Security Council and as a senior officer in the IDF Intelligence Directorate