Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one rhetorical setting, all the time: Hair-on-fire crazy. He’s always quick with a holocaust denial or a threat to wipe Israel from the map, which plays well on the Arab street.
His intended audience could be smaller however, if it turns out his purpose is to provoke an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear assets. And his motives may not be as crazy as his rhetoric.
Under the Begin Doctrine, Israel will strike a hostile nation preemptively to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear bomb, and an imminent threat need not be present. The Israel Air Force (IAF) bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad in 1981 when Iraq was by most estimates still years away from having a bomb.
Ahmadinejad, however, believes Iran’s nuclear program could weather even a massive Israeli strike with acceptable losses. The country sits on the other side of Iraq from Israel, adding distance and the logistical challenge of hitting perhaps dozens of well defended and/or blast-hardened nuclear facilities and hide-sites dispersed around the country.
But how is a survivable attack better than no attack at all as far as Ahmadinejad is concerned?
The key may lie in the fact that the United States has scored a diplomatic win by getting China and Russia aboard the bloc of 27 (out of a possible 35) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) member-nations to vote to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for trashing its nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
This leaves Iran more isolated than it had counted on being. Given the economic ties it enjoys with China and Russia, the Iranian regime had likely figured these trading partners would block any serious effort to stop its nuclear ambitions, especially when pushed by the United States.
But responsible nuclear powers are sober, deliberate, and unexciting. By contrast, nuclear-armed theocracies fronted by hate-spewing puppets can be too hot to handle, even for the Russians and Chinese looking to erode U.S. influence in the Middle East. Say what you will about the North Koreans, at least they understand that an enrichment program means you make crazy threats and the West will enrich you.
Now, if Iran continues to enrich uranium and advance its program, it faces the real prospect of years of sanctions and foreign efforts to encourage uprisings against the country’s unpopular ruling mullahs. The regime might not survive that, even with its windfall oil riches.
The IAEA meets again in March, at which point Iran may harden its bellicose position further. In the lull before then, the Russians are trying to restart stalled talks to perform uranium enrichment on Russian soil (ensuring enrichment does not exceed levels sufficient for peaceful use when it’s sent back to Iran). In the meantime they don’t want their trading partner shot up or bombed, even a little. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that it is important not to make threats toward Iran.
Compared to a tightening noose of sanctions and resulting domestic unrest, an Israeli air strike could seem like Hanukkah for Ahmadinejad — a different present every day.
Beyond retaliatory actions against Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq, such a strike would immediately cause Russia, China, and perhaps India to U-turn and back Iran, while uniting a population of 66 million in nationalist fervor against an external enemy. Also, given the Iranian regime’s penchant for placing bunkers next to mosques and other civilian targets, even a surgically precise strike could yield enough propaganda footage to cause riots throughout the Muslim world.
As for further inspections of its nuclear program, a strike would allow Iran to claim that its nuclear power program had been completely destroyed, giving the regime an excuse to keep nuclear inspectors out of the country, there being "nothing left to inspect."
Even if Ahmadinejad is sincere about flaming nuclear death for Israel, an air strike that merely sets back his ambitions a year or three could be just what he, and the mullahs, hope for.