Former CIA Officials Say Iran’s Clerics Want to Goad Israel Into an Attack

Israel is pressing for military action against Iran’s nukes. But that may be just what some mullahs want.

Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington today, is laying more political groundwork for a possible preemptive Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear sites.

But as Netanyahu rallies his American supporters and discourages diplomatic engagement with Tehran, some intelligence officials and Iran experts tell The Daily Beast that an Israeli attack may be exactly what Tehran’s most hard-line leaders have been trying to provoke.

Marty Martin, a former senior officer in the CIA, ran the unit that hunted Al Qaeda terrorists from 2002 to 2004. Iran’s most militant leaders “are goading the Israelis,” he tells The Daily Beast, “because a bombing will help them put their internal problems aside.”

Martin, who spent most of his 25-year career at the CIA in the Middle East, argues that some clerics and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, confronted with a discontented and restless population, are looking for ways to solidify public support. “The way they see it, if Israel bombs them it relieves the internal pressure,” says Martin. “Amid this turmoil, its always good to have an outside enemy.”

Iran’s internal troubles include a 12 percent unemployment rate, a shattered economy (due in part to international sanctions), resentment over the oppressive regime, and widespread disgust over corruption.

Martin, who retired from the agency in 2007, now works as an independent consultant. He was prominent inside the agency not just for his leadership against Al Qaeda but also for his expertise on the Middle East: his Louisiana drawl disguises the fact that he speaks fluent Arabic.

“If you are an Iranian,” he says, “there is actually a benefit to an Israel strike—an Israel strike which won't be successful completely militarily, but will be successful for saying 'game on'!”

Paul Pillar, the former national intelligence officer for the Middle East, agrees, though he emphasizes that only part of the Iranian leadership is likely plotting this way. “It’s quite rational,” he said, “from the perspective of the specific elements in the regime that believe it would work to their political advantage.” Pillar, who spent 28 years at the CIA, is now a professor at Georgetown University. “I strongly believe that the net political effect of an attack would be to help the hardliners,” he says.

This January, a hard-line newspaper in Tehran, a paper considered close to Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, made the incendiary announcement that a nuclear site buried deep underground was about to start enriching uranium. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that senior White House staff asked during that time period whether Iranian regime elements might be trying to goad Israel into launching airstrikes.

"The White House,” Sadjadpour says, “is mindful of the fact that there are radical elements in Tehran who might like to provoke an attack for their own domestic expediency."

(The National Security Council spokesperson, asked to comment, said no one was available to address the issue this weekend.)

“I do think that a military conflagration could be one of the few things that could potentially rehabilitate the regime,” said Sadjadpour. “It could resuscitate revolutionary ideology and repair the deep fractures both amongst the political elite and among the population and the regime.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Pillar says the theory has some historical evidence on its side. “The big data point in support of this concept is the Iran-Iraq war: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacking Iran,” he says. “Iraq was the aggressor, and the attack [had] a big rally-around-the-flag effect and it had a positive effect in bolstering support for the [Iranian] regime. That’s the most applicable way to look at.”

Iran, in this view, could intentionally cross so-called “red lines” laid out by the Americans or Israelis, to invite an attack that it believes would be largely ineffective against its nuclear sites, and that would not bring large numbers of casualties.

Another veteran of the CIA’s clandestine services, who spent years working with Iranian agents, says he finds the explanation “entirely logical.” (He asked that his name not be used because much of his work was classified.)

“The guys you are talking about, they are not going to die,” he says. “They are not the ones who are going to get bombed. They can always find another lab technician, or another scientist. Those are the ones who are going to die.”