Regime Maintenance

In the hours after Iran’s Monty Python French taunter-style “counterattack” against Israel, everyone with a social media account and a few extra dollars to pay Elon Musk for a blue check, offered up a “verified,” “expert” opinion.

Between that wellspring of analytical haplessness and the clenched-teeth, rapid-fire efforts of newly-minted journalism grads tasked with penning 150 words for every 15 uttered by a G7 leader on Sunday, netizens were left with what, in my opinion, was a false impression.

As discussed in these hallowed pages at considerable length during Saturday’s slow-moving theatrics, Iran’s barrage was a glorified fireworks show. Sunday’s headlines trumpeted Khamenei’s “unprecedented” decision to directly target Israel. Whatever you want to say about the historical significance of this weekend’s events, the target audience was the Iranian public.

As was the case on January 3, 2020, the theocracy suffered an insult so flagrant as to make a direct response the only face-saving option. Four years ago it was the assassination of Qassem Soleimani by the Trump administration. This time, it was the bombing of the Iranian consulate in Damascus by Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet.

In many (not all, but many) cases, autocrats and autocratic regimes stake their legitimacy in part on the presentation of a perpetual foil. The less successful a given regime is at providing for the needs of its people (where that typically means failing to facilitate good economic outcomes) the more important such narratives become. For Vladimir Putin, the foil is NATO and, less precise, the apostate “West.” For Recep Erdogan, the foil is Fethullah Gulen. For North Korea, the foil is America. For Iran, the foil is Israel. And also America.

The story’s always the same. The regime’s not despotic. Rather, some external antagonist — or a cabal of nefarious conspirators — is ultimately responsible for the oppression experienced by everyday Iranians, Russians, North Koreans and so on. Importantly, only the regime can provide for the security of the oppressed populace. That’s the linchpin of the autocratic narrative.

When something happens to threaten that — when the regime’s exposed as weak, particularly vis-à-vis their ostensible antipode — autocrats have to (must) save face. Otherwise, the whole thing falls apart. “Wait a minute. If ‘Great Satan’ can just incinerate our most important military, intelligence and foreign policy asset on the tarmac of our client state’s airport, and if ‘Little Satan’ can just blow up our generals while they’re hanging out at our consulate in our other client state, then why do we need you? Why shouldn’t we just overthrow you and take our chances on a better life?”

You could argue that’s exactly what the US and Israel would like to see in Iran. Regime change. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t be entirely right, either.

Regime change from within (“organic” regime change, if you like) can be a very messy affair. Sometimes messier than the imposition of regime change by an external actor. Recall the sense of concern that pervaded some of the commentary around Yevgeny Prigozhin’s bizarre mutiny in Russia last June. Sure, the West wants Putin gone, but for a couple of hours, security analysts were compelled to ponder the prospect of a disorderly “transition” for a state that possesses the largest cache of nuclear warheads on Earth.

Did we really want Russia’s doomsday stockpile in the hands of a hot dog vendor-turned warlord? And what would happen if Prigozhin couldn’t consolidate power? Would Russia devolve into warring factions? If so, who’d have the launch codes?

Later, the world learned that Prigozhin’s botched mutiny might’ve been a joint effort with Sergei Surovikin, better known as “General Armageddon.” How’s that for terrifying? Russia’s nukes in the hands of a military junta headed by a mercenary chieftain and Commander Apocalypse? Surely the nukes were safer with the only-recently-delusional KGB operative.

The point is that sometimes — and particularly during volatile periods — it’s preferable to let autocrats save face. When regimes fall, they tend to fall overnight. Or basically overnight. There’s no time for the rest of the world to draw up a contingency plan. The regime’s there one day and then gone the next morning.

I’m not suggesting the US helped choreograph Iran’s response to Soleimani’s assassination (which tragically concluded with the accidental downing of a passenger jet flying out of Tehran). And I’m certainly not suggesting the Netanyahu government was somehow a “participant” in this weekend’s bombardment.

What I am saying, though, is that Netanyahu absolutely knew he was backing Khamenei into a corner by bombing the consulate in Damascus (with Mohamad Reza Zahedi and his deputies sitting in it), just like Mike Pompeo surely told Donald Trump that Iran would have to respond if the US pulled the trigger on Soleimani. In both cases, Khamenei had to manage the optics domestically.

The same was true in January, when ISIS bombed a memorial procession for Soleimani in Kerman. The US wasn’t thrilled when an IRGC rocket slammed into Erbil, nor was Pakistan amused when Iranian missiles landed on its side of the border. And nobody bought the cover story about an Israeli “intelligence hub” in Kurdistan and Sunni militants in Baluchistan.

Mossad does have — or at least did have — a presence in Erbil and there are militants in Baluchistan. But exactly nothing was accomplished by targeting them on January 16 other than giving the theocracy an opportunity to manage the optics around the worst terrorist attack since the Revolution.

Sure enough, just hours after that day’s multi-directional missile volley, the IRGC hung up large posters in Tehran touting the country’s defensive capabilities and declaring Iran “a missile power in the world.” It was all about the optics.

It’s through that lens that readers should view this weekend’s barrage against Israel. Nearly every one of the 300 (roughly) drones and missiles launched from Iran and Iraq were intercepted by Israel and the US prior to their reaching Israeli airspace. Almost no one was injured, let alone killed, in the “attack.”

You could suggest the benign outcome was due mostly to Israel’s defensive capabilities, enhanced by the presence of US military assets in the region. A more plausible explanation is that Iran telegraphed its intentions more than a week in advance so as to ensure nothing would get through.

Occam’s razor: If one nation launches 300 missiles and drones at another nation and nobody in the target nation is injured or killed, the most plausible explanation is that the first nation wasn’t trying to hurt anybody.

On Saturday evening, just minutes after the missiles and drones started flying, Iran uploaded a high-resolution commemorative poster to the Ayatollah’s official website. It features a burning Israeli flag and a quote from Khamenei. The site notes that it’s free to download.

If you like memorabilia, Khamenei would probably be happy to autograph one of his new handbills and send it to you. But if you’re outside Iran, you’d need to pay the postage: They’re a little short on foreign currency over there.


Speak your mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

17 thoughts on “Regime Maintenance

  1. The headlines were so surreal. My news scroll was full of things like “Iranian drones inbound to Israel will arrive just hours from now.”

    Even the wire services had the timeline and target list.

  2. Talk about a weapons tradeshow.
    R&D while firing at a fully aware and prepared adversary. We cannot know what mundane targets some of these projectiles may have reached. The customer base may have been savvy to that information.
    This may have actually paved the way to peace.

  3. I’ve long believed that human (and mostl of planet) survival depends upon the wealthiest, most democratic, and most progressive nations boldly forging peaceful / non increasingly militaristic solutions to adverse moments such as these…sadly the US failed miserably after 9/11, Israel appears to be following the same ultimately unwindable approach…and here we are at another fork in the roads … of course given that Netanyahu never met an opportunity for escalation he didn’t like I’m not holding my breathe whatsoever…

    1. Here is the problem- the US GDP is $28T (about) out of global GDP of $110T (about). Therefore, the US is 25% of the global GDP.

      US population is 340 M and global population is 8.1B, so the US is 4% of the global population.

      Even with a regime change in an autocratic country, that gap (between US and the rest of the world) will still exist and the people will still want more (as they should). As a species, we can either increase ex-US global GDP, as a percentage of global GDP, or decrease the population in low GDP countries. This is just how the math works.
      The main problem is how we “share” natural resources. However, developing and sharing nuclear energy for the species would be a reasonable plan (imho).

  4. Stellar writing and analysis. I think and hope your analysis is correct. Certainly it is unique in comparison to a normative way of thinking which you reference.

  5. I am no expert (TM) so nothing I say really counts but I’d like to point out not everyone agrees with this benign reading of the attack.

    Apparently, by timing the missiles to reach their targets at the same time as the drones, by enrolling the help of Hezbollah and the Houthis to launch their own missiles/drones from the North and the South too, the chances of overwhelming “the iron dome” weren’t that negligeable. Some military guy was saying on TV “the running was tighter than the results suggest”…

    Either way, the West leaders are in a difficult position. Do ‘we’ (our elected leaders) choose to escalate (in order to deter China etc) or do we consider the direct tit for tat to be done and “extend and pretend” that China/Russia/Iran (and NK) aren’t looking to topple the post WWII world order? I don’t fancy being Biden right now…

    My 2c right now – I think I’d prefer if we chose to defeat Russia thoroughly in Ukraine coz that’s as escalated as can be (without nukes flying) while attacking Iran would be a whole new can of worms…

    1. This reading isn’t “benign.” But it is right. Which means anybody who doesn’t agree with it is wrong. So there’s that. Your military “TV guy” is doing what TV guys do: Entertaining you. You think an in-depth assessment of the autocratic psyche’s likely to sell a lot of TV ad space? No. But the kind of mindless assessment that says it was a “close call” sure does. It got you watching! And apparently, you watched that before you read this. TV producer mission accomplished.

  6. The Institute for the Study of War (always a good source) had a good take on this. Here’s the link, but I’ll quote the relevant bit directly:

    “The Iranian April 13 missile-drone attack on Israel was very likely intended to cause significant damage below the threshold that would trigger a massive Israeli response. The attack was designed to succeed, not to fail. The strike package was modeled on those the Russians have used repeatedly against Ukraine to great effect. The attack caused more limited damage than intended likely because the Iranians underestimated the tremendous advantages Israel has in defending against such strikes compared with Ukraine. The Iranians will learn lessons from this strike and work to improve their abilities to penetrate Israeli defenses over time as the Russians have done in repeated strike series against Ukraine.

    “The strike consisted of approximately 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles. The drones were launched well before the ballistic missiles were fired, very likely in the expectation that they would arrive in Israel’s air defense window at about the same time as the cruise missiles and drones. The Russians have used such an approach against Ukraine repeatedly. The purpose of such a package is to have the slower cruise missiles and drones distract and overwhelm air defenses in order to allow the ballistic missiles, which are much harder to shoot down, to reach their targets. The Iranians very likely expected that few if any of the cruise missiles and drones would hit their targets, but likely hoped that a significantly higher percentage of the ballistic missiles would do so.

    “Only a few ballistic missiles penetrated Israeli air defenses and struck near Israeli military bases out of the 120 or so the Iranians fired. Ukrainian air defenses have averaged interception rates of only about 46% of Russian ballistic missiles during recent large strikes. The Iranians likely expected that Israeli rates would be higher than the Ukrainian rates but not above 90% against such a large ballistic missile salvo—the Russians, after all, have never fired close to that many large ballistic missiles in a single strike against Ukraine. Ukraine frequently intercepts more than 75% of Russian cruise missiles and drones, but many of those interceptions occur within the air defense umbrella that is also occupied with ballistic missile defense. The Iranians thus likely expected that at least some of their drones and cruise missiles would interfere with Israeli targeting of incoming ballistic missiles, whereas apparently none did.”

    1. That’s wrong. Sorry. If I knew how to type a shrug emoji, I’d type it. I mean maybe the technicalities are “right” (i.e., they mimicked Russia’s playbook) but the notion that Iran wanted this attack to succeed is ludicrous if “succeed” means they wanted to kill people or destroy something meaningful in Israel. It’s amazing to me that so many people don’t seem to understand what would’ve happened in the event one of those missiles or drones had killed a few Israelis. Had that happened, no US president would be able to talk the IDF down. IRGC sites inside Iran would be in flames today. If more than a few of those missiles and drones had killed more than a few Israelis (i.e., if the attack had been truly successful), Khamenei would be in a bunker right now.

      They (Iran) basically apologized for having to go through with this charade while the missiles and drones were still in the sky. Nobody serious says “We can consider this matter concluded” (as Iran did) while an “attack”‘s still going on. That doesn’t make any sense. And the notion that Iran believed the combined air defenses of Israel and the US could be estimated based on Ukraine’s capabilities for an attack which was detailed to the US through backchannels for 10 days ahead of time (according to mainstream reports) is positively silly. If you tell Israel and the US you’re going to shoot at them 10 days from now, the only way you’re going to do any damage is by accident.

      This is right (from NYT coverage):

      “For some analysts, Israel’s strike on Damascus may yet prove to have been a smaller miscalculation than it first appeared. Iran’s aerial assault has already distracted from Israel’s faltering war against Hamas, and reaffirmed Israel’s ties with Western and Arab allies who had become increasingly critical of Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

      The fact that Iran gave Israel so long to prepare for the attack could indicate that Tehran remains relatively deterred, seeking to create only the optics of a major response while trying to avoid a significant escalation, said Michael Koplow, an Israel analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a research group based in New York.

      ‘To me, the jury is out,’ Mr. Koplow said.

      ‘The question is whether this was intended to be something that would actually damage Israel, or if this was supposed to be something that made it seem as though they were responding in strength, but actually signaled that they weren’t,’ Mr. Koplow added.”

      That’s the correct assessment.

      1. I assume this goes without saying, but just in case: When you fire 300 projectiles into a country, there is a chance somebody or something will be hurt. My only point is that Russia leans towards maximizing those chances in Ukraine, whereas Iran leaned towards minimizing those chances in Israel.

      2. Surprisingly, while there seem to be around 1,000 different emojis in markdown, shrug is not among them.

        Also, I don’t know if they’re enabled for WordPress generally, or this site specifically. Let’s find out, shall we?


        Obviously I’m focusing on the emojis because much like James Carville debating Will Farrel, I have no response.

  7. This Nervous Nancy/Chichen Little observer worries it is premature to hoist the all-clear flag after reading what “the moderate” Benny Gantz and others have said: it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how large. Simple bluster or warning?

    Might Netanyahu decide he has much more leverage with Biden if he launched something against Iran closer to the election? It would put Biden in a box. Would he or could he refuse military assistance? Now I’m sure that BiBi would not want to ruin Joe’s chances now, would he?

NEWSROOM crewneck & prints