While we cannot know the future, past history gives a good indication of how Iranians react when confronted with force.
Iranians fear confrontation. They most often get others to do their dirty work so that others would be forced to take the blame. That’s why they created Hezbollah, which carried out terrorist acts for which Hezbollah would be held responsible. An example of this is the 1982 bombing of the American embassy in Lebanon. Americans blamed that organization for the destruction of the embassy, but focused U.S. action on Lebanon, instead of going to the source: Iran.
But when Iranian fears fear they might suffer direct retaliation, they usually cower. Two example illustrate this:
1. After the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, the Iranians took over the U.S. embassy in direct violation of international law. America reacted with words and did not use force. When America eventually did try to use force in the Tabas operation, it failed miserably and was humiliated. When and why did the Iranians release the Americans?
Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidential election in 1980 and took office on Jan. 20, 1981. Forty-five minutes before he took the Oath of Office, Iran bought the hostage to the airport in Tehran and flew them out of the country. The hostages left Iranian airspace at the very moment that Reagan raised his right hand and was sworn in as president.
The Iranians saw Reagan as a dangerous cowboy and feared he would bomb Tehran to smithereens. True to Iranian culture, they why they caved when they feared the worse.
2. Under U.S. President Barack Obama, the Iranians sent small boats to harass America military ships in the Persian Gulf. Iran also took an American military vessel hostage and publicly humiliated the sailors on board. The Iranians also humiliated Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry over and over again during and after the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) negotiations, where Obama and his allies caved in Iranian demands time after time.
As I wrote in an article for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on the sources of Iranian negotiating behavior: “Compromise [as we in the West understand this concept] is seen as a sign of submission and weakness. For Iranians, it actually brings shame on those [and on the families of those] who concede.”
But when President Trump took office, the Iranians feared the worst. Not long thereafter, they stopped harassing American boats in the Gulf, and used many indirect actors to try to convince Washington that it wanted to get along with America. But Trump first chose his original foreign-policy team for the American political establishment. That signaled to the Iranians that they could probably get away with continuing their plan to dominate the Middle East. But when he replaced these establishment figures with the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Iranians feared the game was up.
Their senior leaders started to publicly bicker with and blame each other, which in Iranian culture almost always shows fear on their part. They fear they are going down.
So how might they react to the Monday speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Past history is no guarantee that they will react as they always do. But it does give us insight into what we might expect. It would be out of character now for them to directly confront the United States or Israel, both of which from Iran’s perspective have proven their ability to destroy Iranian targets in Syria.
One might therefore think that Iran would instruct its proxy Hezbollah to send rockets to attack Israel. But if the United States and Israel make it clear that they would hold Iran directly responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, Iran’s would most likely hold Hezbollah back.
But it is also likely that Iran would cower/cave to America and Israel. Iran knows that it cannot stand up to either.
Given Netanyahu’s proof that Iran has continued to violate the JCPOA agreement—America is agreement that what Netanyahu exposed is true—it seems that we now have moved beyond the May 12 deadline.
The Iranian government is quaking in its boots. Now is the time to reassure the Iranian people that we stand with them against their brutal rulers, and after their terrorist regime is overthrown, that we will gladly welcome them back into the community of nations.
Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Ottoman history and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.