Watch out for an Iranian backlash

Considering how Iran's domestic shake-up caught everyone off guard, Western states should be prepared for what the regime might do next.

As hopes run high that Iran's political upheaval will ultimately lead to positive changes in the regime, a word of caution for the West: When Middle Eastern powers feel trapped, they tend to swing blindly at outside states.

The Arab world has been focusing much attention on Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians in an effort to redirect their domestic populations' collective attention away from their own trouble. The Iranian government seems to be following this tactic.

Even as President Obama goes to lengths to indicate that the US is not behind Iran's upheaval, the Iranian regime has cautioned Americans to stay out of its affairs. This has increased the tension, and further muted the chances of successful nuclear negotiations with the US and Europe.

If internal pressure remains, and Iran's current leadership led by Ayatollah Khamenei feels further threatened, it has the power to make things turn ugly fast.

Iran might decide to ratchet up the tension with Britain, knowing that the UK is limited in responding. In March 2007, Iranians captured 15 British sailors at gunpoint and held them for nearly two weeks, claiming they had "invaded" Iranian waters.

In both that instance and the recent arrests of British embassy employees, Britain warned of serious consequences for Iranian intimidation, but backed down once its personnel were released.

As the largest state sponsor of terrorist groups, Iran may decide to use its proxy force Hezbollah to carry out a deadly terrorist attack.

Hezbollah cells are known to operate around the world. And recently, New York City's Police Department deputy commissioner of counter terrorism warned that Hezbollah was more dangerous than Al Qaeda.

If Iran's leadership feels its foundation is at risk, it may authorize actions to refocus the attention of the international community, thus allowing it to more seriously crack down on Iranian dissenters.

These actions could take the form of a major terrorist attack, like the one it carried out in 1994 at the Buenos Aires Jewish community center. It could also take the form of renewed attempts at hostilities on Israel's northern border, now that Hezbollah did not win a majority in recent elections and has reaffirmed its support for Khamenei's leadership.

Another measure could come in the form of its nuclear program. Iran is seeking nuclear technology, and the Israelis have expressed concern that Iran is speeding up its missile development. If negotiations over Iran's nuclear program continue to stall, Israel or the US may feel compelled to reply with force.

These are worst-case scenarios, but considering how Iran's domestic upheaval caught everyone off guard, Western states should be prepared for any scenario. Washington must increase its use of coercive diplomacy and public diplomacy, as past administrations did successfully in the Balkans and Haiti. It must let the Iranians know it is aware of what it might attempt to do, and that it will not tolerate such moves.

Joshua Gleis is a visiting scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He recently received his PhD in international relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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