Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have again hit a wall, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears unconcerned. Indeed, Khamenei seems convinced that neither the US nor Israel will attack its nuclear facilities — at least not before the US presidential election in November.
Ironically, while Khamenei is no fan of democracy, he relies on the fact that his principal enemies are bound by democratic constraints. Khamenei controls Iran’s nuclear program and its foreign policy, but the US and Israel must work to reach consensus not only within their respective political systems, but also with each other.
Iran’s leaders, who closely follow Israeli political debates, believe that Israel would not launch an assault on their nuclear facilities without the US’ full cooperation, because unilateral action would jeopardize Israel’s relations with its most important strategic ally. Given that an Israeli offensive would need to be coordinated with the US, while a US assault would not require Israeli military support, Iran would consider both to be US attacks.
However, Iranian leaders remain skeptical of either scenario, despite the US’ official position that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability. So far, they simply do not feel enough pressure to consider a compromise. In fact, Iran’s leaders continue to deride Israel from afar, calling the country an “insult to humanity,” or a “tumor” in the region that must be eradicated.
Meanwhile, Iranian citizens — including clergy in the holy city of Qom, near the Fordow nuclear facility — are deeply concerned about the consequences of an attack. Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a former attorney general and a religious authority, has asked Tehran to refrain from provoking Israel.
Indeed, critics of the Iranian government believe that its incendiary rhetoric might lead to a devastating war. However, from the perspective of Iran’s leadership, the taunting has tactical value to the extent that it reinforces the view among the Israeli public that Iran is a dangerous enemy, willing to retaliate fiercely.
Anti-Israel rhetoric reflects Iranian leaders’ confidence that Israel will not attack — a view that is bolstered by the situation in Syria. They are convinced that even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls, Iran will be able to destabilize the country in such a way that it would pose a major security threat to Israel. According to this view, it is Israel that has an interest in refraining from further antagonizing Iran, not vice versa.
Recent editorials in Kayhan — the hardline Iranian newspaper that serves as a mouthpiece for the Supreme Leader — indicate that Khamenei is looking forward to the US presidential election. Regardless of the outcome, he foresees no threat of military action, at least through next year. A victory by US President Barack Obama would reinforce the US’ unwillingness to attack Iran and renewed efforts to rein in Israel. If Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney is elected, he will need months to form his national security team and assemble his Cabinet, leaving him unable to attack Iran immediately.
That said, since the Islamic Republic’s emergence in 1979, Iranian leaders have generally preferred Republican presidents to Democrats, because despite their harsh rhetoric, Republicans have been more willing to engage with Iran in practice. Given that Iran has so far survived severe international sanctions, its leaders believe that they could get an offer from the US after the election — particularly if Romney wins — that recognizes their right to enrich uranium.