On August 8, the deputy commander of the Iranian navy, Gen. Gholam-Reza Bigham, gave an interview to a Tehran-based TV station, Alalam, in which he outlined Iran's likely response to an Israeli attack. The degree to which Iran feels threatened can always be calculated in inverse proportion to the hyperbole of its rhetoric; or, to put it more simply, when the Iranians abandon vague, hysterical threats against the "Zionist entity" for more specific warnings, it is a sure sign they are taking things seriously. On this occasion, Bigham soberly referred to Iran's advanced ballistic missile program, reminding his interviewer of the country's ability to deliver "devastating blows within enemy territory, using advanced, Iranian-produced military equipment and systems."
Most telling was Bigham's warning of the wider regional implications of an Israeli strike, which would merely "wreak destruction" upon the region, not only, he pointedly added, on U.S. interests. He then appeared to address Israel's leadership directly, speaking of his hope that no one would "perpetrate such a stupid act," before ending with a nonmilitary threat: If armed conflict did arise, Iran would also have to consider closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which around 20 percent of the world's oil passes.
The Iranians clearly take Israel's threats seriously; and they are prepared. Just this week Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled an upgraded short-range, surface-to-surface ballistic missile, said to have an improved accuracy against land and naval targets.
And yet the regime seems to be doing everything it can to bring Israel's wrath down on itself. Last Friday, in a speech at the Tehran commemoration of Al-Quds Day (an annual event held on the last Friday of Ramadan, calling for the "liberation" of Jerusalem ), the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, once more promised that the "Zionist regime" would be annihilated. Standard fare for "Jerusalem Day," but one might have thought that increasing tensions with Israel would have given Iran's leader a reason to cool things down.
In fact, the rhetorical escalation serves two purposes. First, it is designed to distract domestic attention from Iran's serious domestic problems. EU sanctions on the country's oil industry, and U.S. sanctions on its financial sector, are accentuating deep-seated structural problems in the Iranian economy. Unemployment is at around 15 percent, with inflation near 20 percent. Urging the Iranian people to rally to the Palestinian cause is to ask them - if only temporarily - to forget their deep-seated grievances against the regime.
The second reason illustrates the more unpalatable truth that some hardliners would probably welcome a degree of armed conflict with Israel, hoping that the presence of an external enemy would shore up a regime that has been bleeding legitimacy since 2009's fraudulent presidential elections.
Regime opponents in Iran's traditionally faction-ridden political elite now regularly line up to attack the government. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is especially vocal - castigating Iran's leadership for bringing the world's opprobrium down on the country. In a June speech to seminary students in the city of Qom, in a blatant attack on the leadership, he claimed that after three decades of the Islamic Republic, "values such as purity, honesty and justice" had been replaced by "deception, self-promotion, lying, slander and injustice."
The strategy may appear foolish - the more Iran threatens, the more isolated it becomes - but the vast majority of Iranians, many of whom understandably loathe the regime, would reluctantly rally to their government in the face of an attack. In Tehran's streets, "Death to the dictator" is grafittied on walls, but so are vows to fight the "foreign threat," which are scrawled alongside posters declaring that "We are not interested in wars, but we will defend our land."
Khamenei knows that there are limits to what Israel can do to Iran's nuclear facilities. Natanz in 2012 is not Osirak in 1981. The Iraqi reactor that Israel destroyed was a single, above-ground facility in a country far closer to Israel. It was because of the Osirak precedent that Iran decentralized its program, dispersing its numerous nuclear facilities across a far greater area, and deep underground. Just last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that Israel could delay but certainly not destroy Iran's nuclear program.
What the mullahs really fear is American involvement, but an increasingly important strain of Iranian thinking, represented by the conservative newspaper Kayhan, believes Washington will not intervene. "A decade ago," it opined in a recent editorial, a military attack against Iran "seemed a foregone conclusion." Now, it concluded, even President Obama believes that those advocating military action are "braggarts and blabbermouths." Its message was clear: Iran now has "no need to compromise in order to grow strong."
Khamenei now seems set on a two-pronged approach. Rigorously preparing for Israeli strikes while apparently doing everything in his power to ensure they come. Iran's recent attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya and Bulgaria have only further intensified the situation and seem designed to trigger an Israeli reaction against Iran or its proxy, Hezbollah.
Isolated, increasingly vulnerable and under huge financial pressure, Tehran is facing its most testing time since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. It needs a miracle - and an Israeli attack may just provide one.
David Patrikarakos is a journalist, and author of "Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State," to be published later this month by I.B. Tauris.