Imagine you’re the intelligence analyst in Tehran who is charged with making an assessment of the leadership in Washington…and predicting what President Obama will do. Not an easy task. Even Washington can’t predict what Washington will do. Still, some in Tehran will be assessing the data they receive about Washington, evaluate it and make predictions. We know from post-war interviews with Iraqis—including Saddam—that they had a grossly simplified set of assumptions about the Bush Administration. Probably Tehran will not do much not better. Consider what they see.
President Obama ended the US military role in Iraq and is in the process of ending the US military role in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration nevertheless continues to kill enemies (by remote control) in Pakistan and other locations on an individual, by name, basis.
Most recently President Obama travelled all the way to Afghanistan to sign an agreement with President Karzai who won an election that was dubiously legitimate at best. Tehran would have to wonder why the leader of the last superpower flies on the massive Air Force One secretly to Afghanistan to give a speech in the middle of the night before some American troops (and lots of cameras) to celebrate the one year anniversary of killing one person—albeit Usama bin Laden. Why is that a Tehran analyst might ask?
Obviously, Tehran will be aware that there is debate about a possible military action by either Israel or the United States against Iranian nuclear facilities. They would also be aware that elections are pending in both Israel (September) and the United States (November).
Tehran may observe that Obama’s record is one that ends wars with countries, but is willing to kill individual enemies. And he and needs to appear strong to be re-elected.
An analysis from Tehran could conclude from this selection of data that their best option is to vigorously declare that an attack on their facilities will begin a full scale war with Iran…a nation of over 70 million. Tehran would dispute any hint that such a military attack could be a limited action—no matter what Obama may declare.
Tehran could be expected to sustain that position even if they may acknowledge internally that responding militarily to an attack might ultimately be against their interests.
Such a declared position by Iran might work. Based on recent public presentations, it seems pretty clear that the Administration seeks to retain an image of resoluteness by killing individuals while avoiding the less indiscriminate (and vastly more expensive) options of going to war with another nation.
In this light, Tehran may be expected to loudly and continuously proclaim that an attack on their state, whether limited to nuclear facilities or not, will be the start of a war whose end cannot be predicted.
Celebrating Washington’s ability to kill one person (after a decade of effort and billions of dollars) does not necessarily convey strength or even wisdom.