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Would an Israeli attack on Iran help or hurt the Ayatollah politically?

Question submitted by Lily Nellans, from Roosevelt High School (NFL), Des Moines, Iowa, July 15, 2013

Answered by: Reza Aslan, Adjunct Senior Fellow


Among Iran scholars there is a joke about how every night before going to sleep, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gets down on his knees and prays for an Israeli attack on his country.

The clerical regime is deeply unpopular in Iran, particularly among the 70 percent of Iranians who are under the age of thirty. Politically, the country is as fractured as it has ever been, with the conservative groups allied with the Supreme Leader spending more time fighting with each other than they do fighting the reformists. This was most clearly demonstrated in the recent presidential elections, as infighting among the three conservative candidates, Mohammad Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Valayati, and Saeed Jalili weakened the platforms of all three men and allowed the moderate Hassan Rowhani to win in a landslide. Meanwhile, the economy is on the verge of collapse, the Iranian currency is in free fall, and oil sales are drying up rapidly.

All of this has created a deep sense of resentment against the clerical regime among ordinary Iranians: hence the joke about the Ayatollah praying for an attack. If there is one thing to know about Iranians, it is that they are fiercely patriotic. They may want nothing more than to drag the mullahs by their beards out of the halls of the government and beat them senseless on the streets, but they will not tolerate any form of outside intervention. A military attack on Iran, especially one by Israel, would rally all Iranians to the government. It would completely stifle the voices of dissent in the name of national security, and provide precisely the glue the Ayatollah needs to keep his country together under his control.