Disagreements about intensity of expected Iranian response
Speaking as part of an INSS videoconference, one expert after another described different reasons for the regime’s resilience despite the manifold challenges they face, including the seemingly endless and unstoppable series of explosions.
At the same time, there was disagreement between experts about when and to what extent Iran would respond to the explosions, including one at Natanz which destroyed around three-quarters of Iran’s key advanced centrifuge nuclear uranium enrichment facility.
Though officially Tehran has not pointed the finger at any specific party, some Iranian national security officials have implied that they will respond against Israel and the US.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Meir Litvak disputed the idea that the absence of a major Iranian reaction to date shows it is weak and will not respond later.
Rather, he said, “they have reacted before with the cyberattack against the Israeli” water sector in April, and that this time they may simply be “waiting until they can hit harder from Syria” or some other opportunity.
Litvak pointed out that Tehran’s response to the US assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani was limited in the sense that there was no equally dramatic counterattack.
However, he said that Iran did strike US bases in Iraq and continues to regularly use proxies to attack these bases.
He added, “The Iranians will not wait forever. It is not smart to try to embarrass them.”
IDC Herzliya’s Dr. Ori Goldberg said that there is “not much it [Iran] can do to react.”
He added that “the Iranian public is not up in arms for vengeance,” but that, presuming Israel was involved in the explosions, Jerusalem should be careful not to “run out of control with tactical attacks and gains without thinking things through” regarding the strategic impacts.
INSS expert Dr. Raz Zimmt took a different view, saying the regime knew “the attack on Natanz was significant. They want to respond. The population is angry about Natanz” and would support counterstrikes.
In his view, the lack of a response to date is not based on the general public, but the fact that “the regime is pragmatic about what is right for Iran…. They responded to Israeli strikes on Iranians in Syria” with the cyberattack on Israel’s water sector.
“But then they got hit harder” by the Israeli cyber response, he noted. “With all respect to Israel, Iran is also dealing with an issue with the IAEA in September [a dispute over access to two undeclared nuclear sites] and in October before the UN Security Council [the debate over whether a conventional arms embargo will be extended], and they are waiting to see about November” if Joe Biden replaces Donald Trump as a more moderate US president.
Yet, Zimmt warned, “we should be modest. If someone would have suggested to me last year” about the daring and highly destructive drone and rocket attacks Iran undertook against the Saudis this past year, “I would have been shocked” and not believed they had such a capability.