As Israel contemplates military action to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is essential to take a closer look at Iran’s most powerful man – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and his views toward the Jewish state. A clearer understanding of the precise challenge Iran poses should disabuse Israeli leaders of the idea that force is the best way to neutralize it.
Although Khamenei was an underwhelming compromise choice to be succeed Ayatollah Khomeini when he died in 1989, a confluence of factors has made him more confident and powerful now than ever. Externally, these include soaring oil prices, together with Iranian leverage in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Internally, the country’s most important institutions – the Revolutionary Guards, Guardian Council, presidency and parliament – are currently led by individuals who were either directly appointed by Khamenei or are unfailingly obsequious to him.
A careful study of Khamenei’s writing and speeches may offer the most accurate reflection of Iranian domestic and foreign policy aims and actions over the past two decades. They depict a resolute leader with a remarkably consistent and coherent – though highly cynical and conspiratorial – worldview. Whether he is addressing foreign policy, agriculture or education, Khamenei rarely misses an opportunity to invoke the professed virtues of the 1979 revolution – justice, independence, self-sufficiency and Islam – and express his disdain for the ambitions of “global arrogance,” the United States.
The issue that has featured most prominently in Khamenei’s political discourse, however, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has long expressed an obsessive contempt for the Jewish state, articulating a two-pronged policy of armed resistance as the prelude to a political solution.
In explaining Iran’s support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Khamenei reasons that, “The Zionists have not pulled out of even a single square meter of occupied territories as a result of negotiations and will never do so in the future.” At the same time, however, he has made an effort to qualify President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent statements, stating consistently that Tehran’s goal is not Israel’s military destruction, but its dissolution via a “popular referendum.”
Speaking to a group of Muslim clerics two years ago, Khamenei explained that, “We believe that neither throwing the Jews into the sea nor putting the Palestinian land on fire is logical and reasonable. We have suggested that all native Palestinians, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews, be allowed to take part in a general referendum before the eyes of the world and decide on a Palestinian government. Any government that is the result of this referendum will be a legitimate government.”
While Israeli leaders are unlikely to feel reassured knowing that Iran doesn’t want to bomb Israel, only referendum it out of existence, this assessment of Khamenei’s strategy should compel Israeli officials to question the efficacy of the oft-mentioned military option.
Plainly put, a military attack on Iran – whether carried out by the U.S. or by Israel – would augment, not diminish, the threat posed by Tehran. For one, it would only enhance Iran’s reputation as the Muslim world’s lone, brave, anti-imperialist nation, which defies both the Great Satan and its little brother. Ahmadinejad’s popularity would soar to even greater heights on the Arab street, increasing the likelihood that such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah would grow more powerful.
What’s more, an attack would likely aid Iran’s moribund economy. When Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz vowed last June to attack Iran, oil prices skyrocketed $11 in one day, the annual equivalent of $10 billion in additional revenue to Iranian coffers. This allows Iran the luxury to continue pouring money into a costly nuclear program and putting ideological interests ahead of national ones.
But the greatest repercussions of an Israeli attack would be its effect on Iran domestically. At the political level, a military attack would rehabilitate and entrench Tehran’s most radical elements – such as Ahmadinejad – for years to come. Using the pretext of a national security emergency, debate and dissent would be crushed. While at the moment Iran’s nuclear ambitions are ambiguous, in the wake of a military offensive, Tehran’s hardliners may well make plain their need for a nuclear weapon deterrent.
Repercussions would also be felt on a popular level. Until now, there has been no inherent reason for Iranians to pay much attention to the government’s focus on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Iran has no borders with Israel, no Palestinian refugee problem, a long history of contentious relations with the Arab world, and the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel.
An Israeli attack would create a popular enmity toward the Jewish state that 29 years of Iranian government propaganda have failed to achieve. Even among the country’s liberal elite, national pride will likely trump contempt for the government. Ahmad Batebi, a prominent student leader who recently escaped to the U.S. after spending most of the last decade imprisoned and tortured in Iran, declared that in the event of a military attack on Iran, he might well return to defend his country.
Ultimately, Israel’s underlying problem with Iran is not its nuclear ambitions, but the nature of the Iranian regime. As long as the political status quo remains in Tehran, Israel will never be able to trust Iranian intentions, even if there is a nuclear agreement. For this reason, while Israel should do everything in its power to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions peacefully, Israeli leaders should simultaneously champion U.S. and international policies that best expedite peaceful political reform in Tehran. While this may not provide a quick fix to the nuclear conundrum, by enhancing Iran’s oil revenue, entrenching its most radical forces, alienating its population, and strengthening its regional support, an Israeli strike on Iran will only ensure that the Iranian government, and the Iranian people, will remain enemies of the Jewish state for years to come.
Karim Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and director of its Iran Initiative. This article first appeared in .