Iran’s military warnings: what does history tell us?
It can be an unnerving experience wandering among the graves of Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, just outside Tehran.
Photographs of the dead from the 1980-88 war with Iraq, “martyrs” as they are called here, stare out in seemingly unending rows. Often horrifyingly young. Many tombs are tended as if the dead died yesterday. Flowers are fresh. Small Korans are tucked into neat glass cabinets that serve as headstones.
For a nation which still weeps for Hussein, one of the 12 Shi’ite Imams and who died in a hopeless battle at Kerbala in the 7th century, family heroes killed in a war that ended just two decades ago are still caught in a close embrace.
So why are they relevant now? Because these dead have become caught up in a war of words that is escalating around the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear programme.
Israel has vowed never to let Iran build an atomic bomb, which Tehran insists it doesn’t want. Washington says force is a last resort — but it remains an option.
To that, Iran’s leaders say, remember our brave boys.
Our “martyrdom-seekers”, like the men (and teenagers) who lined up in human waves against Iraq, will be ranged against you. The Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Gulf’s vital oil wells, will be shut down by those who spurn death. And these courageous individuals are only part of our armoury: missiles, ships and planes, even allies in the region, stand ready.
The message is clear: Attack at your peril, Iran’s retaliation will be decisive, wide-ranging and devastating.
But will it? Military experts accept Iran could cause havoc in the area. But what kind of match will it really be for the world’s only superpower when some of Iran’s weapons pre-date the 1979 revolution while others are modified Chinese and North Korean designs? Iran speaks proudly of its “martyrs”. But what use are rows of soldiers if strikes are carried out by U.S. and Israeli warplanes or guided missiles fired from afar?
And then there is a bigger question: Iran may hark back to its all-out defence against the Iraqi assault in 1980 but does that really tell us about a future response?
A study by two senior Washington-based researchers, Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt (http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC04.php?CID=292) suggests not.
Their study, called The Last Resort, aims to explain the consequences of what they call “preventive military action” against Iran, should Israel or the United States choose to act. Context, they write, matters. Whether Israel or America carried out the strike will matter. The kind of case Washington has made before staging any attack may determine whether it wins international backing or not. These kind of issues could help determine how Iran reacts — which is far from clear.
“The Islamic Republic’s track record of responding to military provocations is decidedly mixed,” they write before listing seven such “provocations” with reaction. Three of these times Iran engaged in “no significant retaliatory action”.
For example, when Iraq started targetting Iranian cities and oil facilities late in the 1980s war, Iran replied by sending its own missiles against Iraqi civilian population centres, striking international shipping and trying to destabilise nearby Arab governments. (The tactic backfired by strengthening international resolve against Iran, they write.)
But when, in the closing stages of that war with Iraq when the ship USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner — an action Iran to this day insists was intentional — Iran never apparently retaliated, they write. Instead, Tehran seemed to view it as showing U.S. readiness to close ranks with Iraq and Iran shortly after agreed a ceasefire. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the later revolutionary leader, said it was like drinking poison. (Washington says the airliner was hit by accident and agreed to pay compensation.)
“Tehran recognizes that at times its interests are best served by restraint, although it will react when circumstances permit,” the researchers write. “Tehran has not always reacted swiftly to foreign attacks to assuage nationalist passions — and it has sometimes not responded at all.”
Those fallen men, and the youths who never grew up to have more than wispy beards, are testimony to admirable bravery. They died in defence of their country and cause. But whether this tells you how Iran would handle any future conflict is more open to discussion.