One ongoing concern about a military strike on Iran is the prospect of revenge attacks. This may be overblown. There are several possible mechanisms for an Iranian revenge strike, international terror attacks, attacks through Hezbollah directly on Israel, and attacks in the Persian Gulf. The first two may not be as serious a danger as previously thought, although trouble in the Persian Gulf (where Iran is a major presence and can sow discord in several nearby countries) is not something to take lightly.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Hezbollah has been increasingly careful about picking fights with Israel. War with Israel is not popular in Lebanon (the people are tired of being bombed and Hezbollah does seem to take general public sentiment into account – and Hezbollah’s public reputation in Lebanon has suffered multiple blows.) Finally, despite the perception of a Hezbollah victory – Hezbollah was hit hard in the 2006 and can be certain the IDF has been prepping for another round. Exacerbating Hezbollah’s concerns is the turmoil in Syria. Hezbollah has superior arms to the other factions in Lebanon – but an untimely Hezbollah action could open up a new round of sectarian violence in Lebanon, which would quickly tie into fighting in neighboring Syria. Hezbollah has a lot of incentives to hold its fire. (On that front, it is worth noting that Hamas has already opted out of an Iranian-Israeli war.)
Hezbollah and Iran have been responsible in the past for numerous terror attacks worldwide. But the last really devastating Iranian strike abroad was Khobar in 1996. Intelligence agencies worldwide have been carefully monitoring Hezbollah and IRGC operations, and effectively neutralized, but not eliminated, this capability. The relatively small revenge (and unsuccessful) strikes in Georgia, Bangkok, Azerbaijan, and India would seem to be indicative of this. Attacks that get close, without being successful still require substantial operational capability, so writing off Hezbollah-IRGC operational capabilities is pre-mature. But then what was this? Were they a shot across the bow to warn the West that they were back in the international terror business? If so, was it an attempt to “puff up” and appear more capable then they actually are? No doubt the recent operations will reveal intelligence that can then be applied to foiling future operations. The relatively small scale of the operations is also telling: the larger the operation, the more moving parts and thus the greater the likelihood of detection and disruption by Western intelligence. While Iran may be able to carry out tiny attacks, repeats of the terrible bombings in Argentina appears less likely.
Strikes in the Persian Gulf could be serious. Iran has been building its networks with the region’s Shia communities. But, against an Israeli strike these networks would be irrelevant (avenging an Israeli strike by fomenting trouble in Bahrain makes little sense.) Further, the Persian Gulf states have capable security forces and their own levers for stirring up things within Iran.
Historical Perspectives on the Iranian Threat
It is just past Purim, a Jewish holiday that remembers a near disaster in ancient Persia in which a gullible king was led by his wicked vizier to plot to murder the Jews. Through a deft combination of beauty and brains, the vizier, Haman was out-maneuvered and hung from the gallows he had constructed. It is a strange holiday, celebrated with drink (not a typical Jewish motif), but well worth considering as Israel, the United States, and the world debate what to do about Iran and its nuclear program.
It seems worth noting that the victory in Purim was not won by force of arms, but by intelligence. The dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon should go without saying. Iranian leaders have shown a disturbing tendency to make policy based on eschatology, it would empower Iran to pursue subversive behaviors, and finally it could trigger a Middle Eastern arms race that (even if all the players are careful rational actors – an awfully big if) increases the likelihood of a miscalculation or accident that could lead to a massive tragedy.
However, military options are not a silver bullet. The facilities are buried deep underground and may not be vulnerable. At the same time, the covert campaign has had some significant successes. A bombing campaign against Iran may not stop the program but will almost certainly spike oil prices – which makes a whole lot of people around the world much poorer very quickly.
This is not to say that bombing should be off the table – an Iranian nuke is intolerable, only considered carefully.