The Mossad operation in January that got half a ton of top-secret Iranian nuclear weapons program documents out of Iran and back to Israel in less than 24 hours has provided Iranian leaders with multiple aftershocks. For one thing most Iranians don’t care about the document theft. No Iranians were injured in the operation, it was assumed to have been made possible by the widespread corruption in Iran and an Iranian religious dictatorship that seems to care more about destroying Israel than improving the lives of Iranians. When news of the Mossad operation were made public by the Israelis at the end of April the public opinion polls in Iran showed that most Iranians didn’t care and those that paid any attention to the matter felt it was just another example of how incompetent their government was and why change was needed. The Iranian government was justifiably concerned that publicizing these documents, as Israel was now doing, would lead to the cancellation of the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions on Iran. The American president will announce the new U.S. position on May 12 th and it does not look good for Iran. The stolen documents show that the nuclear program did exist and apparently is still underway disguised as many different scientific research projects.
Iran always insisted that it never had a nuclear weapons program even though the Israelis had uncovered much evidence that the program existed and the attitude of most Iranians was that the program existed and why not because Iran had long been the regional superpower. But since the 2015 treaty went into effect the promised economic improvements for most Iranians have not happened and at the end of 2017 that triggered widespread public protests against the religious dictatorship. The Shia clerics who run the government have been arguing openly about how to deal with these problems and now the hardline Shia clerics, who insist that destroying Israel be the main priority of Iran, are humiliated by the nuclear documents theft going public. Some of the hardliners want to do whatever it takes to strike back at Israel but most Iranians see Israel as an unofficial ally in the popular effort to get rid of the religious dictatorship in Iran. This is nothing new. In the wake of the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, and quick (three weeks) overthrow of the Saddam Hussein government, many Iranians openly called for the Americans to come invade Iran and get rid of the religious dictatorship that had been ruling Iran since the 1980s on the promise they would one day “get Saddam” for invading Iran in 1980 and starting a war that neither side was able to win. That counted as an Iranian defeat to most Iranians and to make matters worse the chaos of the war allowed Shia clerics to take, and keep, control of the government. Before that Israel and Iran were allies and a growing number of Iranians seeing that as a better arrangement than the current one. All this gives little comfort, and not many options, for the Iranian leadership.
The Realities Of The Iranian Threat
The Iranian government prefers to retaliate against Israel indirectly. Iran has long used foreign proxies (like Hezbollah or other non-Iranian Islamic terrorists) to attack Israel. Iran does not have modern weapons (because of decades of sanctions) and Iranian leaders are smart enough to realize that Iran itself trying to attack Israel would most likely result in another humiliating Iranian defeat. Israel has anti-missile defenses against Iranian ballistic missiles. Yet Iran has enough of these missiles to attempt a “saturation attack” on Israel using explosive or chemical warheads. Iran could also use a “dirty” warhead by adding radioactive material to a high explosive warhead. A few of these missiles landing in Israel, especially in a major urban area, would be a great propaganda victory. But Israel also has ballistic missiles (armed with nuclear warheads) and, worse, hundreds of modern fighter-bombers that could hit two key economic targets using smart bombs. These two targets are Kharg Island, in the Persian Gulf. This is the main export facility for 90 percent of oil and gas exports) Income from these exports pay for over a third of the government budget and these facilities cannot be rebuilt quickly. The other economic target is Bandar Abbas in southern Iran. This is the main container port handling some 90 percent of containers bringing in foreign goods, like items needed to repair damage to Kharg Island. Bandar Abbas is where all the modern tech and consumer goods arrive. Shutting down Bandar Abbas for months, or more, would be quickly felt by most Iranians. With Arab states between Israel and Iran now allowing Israeli airstrikes free passage, the Israeli air strikes are certain to succeed and inflict major damage.
Meanwhile Iran is portrayed as the evil (and ineffective) aggressor while Israel hits Iran where it hurts most. The Iranian religious dictatorship is under a lot of pressure to provide some relief for years of poverty and unemployment. The 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions was supposed to help but it didn’t. Instead the government spends billions on the war in Syria. That effort has not yet improved Iranian capabilities when it comes to destroying Israel. That’s because the Assad government forces (including most of the 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria) are still busy with the remaining rebels and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters. In Lebanon the Iranian financed Hezbollah is not very enthusiastic about going to war with Israel. That’s because the two million Lebanese Shia that are the main support for Hezbollah are unhappy with the thousands of Lebanese Shia who have been killed or crippled fighting in Syria. Iran insisted that Hezbollah send forces to Syria in 2012 and even though Iran was paying combat bonuses, death benefits and for extended medical care, the Lebanese Shia were, in general, unhappy about the losses suffered from fighting in an Iranian war. Israel has told Lebanon and Hezbollah that a repeat of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel would result in even heavier losses for Hezbollah and Lebanon. Hezbollah leaders pretend to be unafraid but the opinion polls in Lebanon say otherwise.
So as humiliated as the Iranian rulers are by the latest Israeli efforts (grabbing all those nuclear documents in February and regularly bombing weapons shipments to Syria) they understand Iranian options are not promising. Given the growing popular opposition the religious dictatorship is facing inside Iran, another major defeat inflicted by Israel is not an option. New ideas are being sought and retaliation is not yet ruled out but retaliation is seen as a move that would make things worse for Iran.