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Iran will retaliate if attacked, but how?

Targets pose ‘strategic dilemma’

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Israel’s prime minister accuses Iran of being behind a pair of car bombings in February that hit Israeli diplomatic targets, including an explosion that tore through a car belonging to the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. (Associated Press)

Middle East analysts are certain that Iran would retaliate if Israel strikes its nuclear facilities, though the size, nature and targets of the counterattack remain mysteries.

Iran has several options, such as an all-out military offensive that likely would engulf the entire region, a more limited assault using proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, or a terrorism campaign against Israeli embassies and Jewish sites around the world.

What’s more, the counterstrike options entail global consequences, including a slowing in economic growth because of higher oil and gasoline prices, fuel shortages from shipping disruptions in the Persian Gulf and the potential for the U.S. to become embroiled in another war.

“Iran is going to have its own strategic dilemma after a strike,” said Matthew Kroenig, nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“On the one hand, it’s going to have to strike back to save face domestically and re-establish deterrence internationally. On the other hand, it’s not going to want to pick a fight with Israel or the United States that could lead to the destruction of the regime,” Mr. Kroenig said. “So it’s going to try to calibrate its response - do something, but not too much.”

Analysts agree that the scale and nature of Iran’s response will depend on many unpredictable factors, including the degree to which Tehran views Washington as having approved an Israeli strike.

The general assumption is that Iran would ask the Islamist militant groups Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon to fire rockets at Israeli population centers. Tehran also probably would launch some of its own long-range Shahab-3 missiles while sponsoring terrorist attacks against Israeli embassies and Jewish soft targets around the world.

Analysts disagree, however, about whether Iran would act against U.S. interests and other third parties in the region, given that all-out retaliation could draw an overwhelming U.S. response and dampen international sympathy in the aftermath of an Israeli attack.

“In Iran, there is this belief and perception that U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East are almost identical and convergent, so if Israel attacks Iran, Tehran will believe that the U.S. gave Israel the green light,” said Alireza Nader, senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and co-author of “Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry.”

Mr. Nader said Iran might “play the victim” and offer limited retaliation against Israel, then exploit international outrage to kick out U.N. nuclear inspectors and restart its nuclear program.

But, he added: “All these things are very hard to tell because war doesn’t always go according to plan, and the situation could escalate out of control.”

Part of the difficulty in predicting Iranian retaliation is the number of options at the regime’s disposal.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about one-fifth of the world’s petroleum is transported. Economic forecasters predict that closing the strait could push the price of oil to more than $200 a barrel.

The Iranian regime also could sponsor attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or strike U.S. assets in the Persian Gulf, such as the Navy’s 5th Fleet based in Bahrain. Alternatively, Tehran could attack U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, many of which have been agitating for a strike against Iran.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapon, which Tehran has denied. The Jewish state considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat because of the regime’s call for Israel’s destruction.

The U.S. has urged Israel to allow international sanctions enough time to persuade Tehran’s leaders to change their behavior, but Israeli officials have said that the military should strike before Iran can secure its nuclear facilities from attack, presumably by this summer.

War-game scenarios

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, said Tehran would “prefer to avoid a full-fledged confrontation with Washington,” but that the density of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf would make it difficult for Tehran to do anything in the Gulf without drawing a U.S. response.

Equally hard to predict, analysts say, is how President Obama would react to each scenario, particularly if the crisis erupts in the heat of the fall’s presidential campaign, when he would face competing pressures to appear strong and to keep the inevitable spike in oil prices brief to avoid another recession.

“There’s a possibility that we would do nothing, aside from any immediate self-defense of any forces, because Obama would be very frustrated by such an Israeli decision and would want to underscore that it was not an American decision - and one way to prove that is to take a couple hits and don’t retaliate,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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About the Author
Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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