Commentary | June 28, 2010

Did Iran Just Blink?

Greg Austin wrote this piece for his column in New Europe

If I was the Supreme Leader, I would be preparing now for a military attack against several of the country’s nuclear facilities. The warning signs of such an attack are mounting. My planning would proceed on several levels – diplomatic, intelligence, military and, most importantly, domestic politics.

After years of threat and sanctions against Iran, intelligence analysts face a problem in understanding just when and where the attack might happen. Richard Betts captured the essence of this problem in his 1982 book Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning, by reference to the term “wolf at the door”. After long periods of hostile rhetoric and diplomatic or military mobilization (the “wolf is at the door” and strategic warning of attack is clear), it becomes very difficult to identify the moment when (or if) the operational plan of attack is to be put into place.

The intelligence analyst is forced back on intuition and even more careful analysis. The search intensifies for the “diagnostic” keys – the pieces of evidence that the long announced threat to attack is about to executed. Timing is everything. On 6 June 2010, The New York Times reported that in February, Israel had briefed China on the severe economic consequences for it of an Israeli attack on Iran, could be one “diagnostic” key. The source was clearly an Israeli official, but does the timing of the leak have any significance?

The news story presented the secret and high level briefing as part of the diplomatic effort to convince China to support a new sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council. But the significance could lie elsewhere. The leak may have been intended to let people know that China has been briefed on the attack and to imply a degree of co-option or acquiescence. This has diplomatic potential to reinforce pressure on Iran but is more importantly another sign that the window for diplomacy is all but closed.

The escalating diplomatic pressure over more than five years has failed. The Israeli “wolf” is at Iran’s door. If attacked, what is Ayatollah Khamenei’s plan for mobilizing his divided country, a condition he admits (and is plain for all to see)? In a speech of 8 June on the importance of national unity, yet another one, he warned of a rare and new sensitivity to the international situation that would affect the world for generations to come.

Then comes the news that an Iranian plan to send a humanitarian aid ship flotilla to Israel would be cancelled. The Revolutionary Guards let it be known publicly on 14 June that they would not defend the ships, in spite of a promise by Khamenei’s personal representative to the Guards on 6 June that they would. A proposed mass visit of 200 Iranian members of parliament to Gaza is reportedly reduced to just be three members.

Looking for the diagnostics on Iran’s responses to the “wolf at the door”, it is possible – one can never be certain with access to so few sources of evidence – that Iran has just blinked after years of escalating threat.

Why would Iran back down now? The threat from Israel to Iran’s leaders is personal. While Israeli bombs may not target Iran’s civilian leaders individually, an Israeli attack on the country may well unseat them in the most unceremonious way. A famous study from the Cold War by Hannes Adomeit (Soviet Risk Taking and Crisis Behaviour, 1973) noted that as Soviet leaders became more politically insecure at home, they became more conservative on the international stage in terms of risk. Does this now apply to Iran?  Is it starting to think about pulling back from the looming confrontation?