Last month, a series of explosions occurred at Iranian nuclear facilities, leading to speculation that they were the result of deliberate acts of sabotage, perhaps by Israel. If Tehran concludes that Jerusalem—or Washington—is responsible, how might it respond? Michael Eisenstadt attempts to answer this question:
If Iran ultimately attributes any recent acts of sabotage to Israel, it will almost certainly respond as it has in the past: with cyberattacks against Israeli critical infrastructure and rocket, drone, or missile attacks from Syria. In addition, reports indicate that the Mossad recently thwarted several planned attacks on Israeli embassies in Europe and elsewhere. If true, this would be an unusually severe response to an act of nonlethal sabotage, so these reports should be treated with caution. Iran last attacked Israeli embassies in 2012 after the killing of several nuclear scientists.
Tehran may believe that the United States and Israel cooperated on the latest incidents at the Natanz [nuclear facility] and elsewhere, just as they cooperated in the Stuxnet cyberattacks on Natanz beginning in 2007. Generally, however, the regime has been reluctant to escalate simultaneously against both enemies. And whenever it deems U.S. interests too difficult or dangerous to target, it tends to lash out at Israel and/or Saudi Arabia instead. In 2010, for example, it warned Washington and Jerusalem that they would both be held responsible for killing Iranian nuclear scientists, though U.S. officials denied involvement at the time; in the end, it targeted only Israeli interests.
Although Iranian leaders often pepper their pronouncements with threats of revenge, their behavior generally reflects strategic considerations. But because they tend to see the world in zero-sum terms, they believe that if they do not respond to perceived transgressions, they risk emboldening their enemies.