Home iran Decoding Khamenei’s Gambit: Why Risk A Direct Attack On Israel?

Decoding Khamenei’s Gambit: Why Risk A Direct Attack On Israel?


The fundamental policy of the Islamic Republic has traditionally been to avoid direct confrontation with Israel, instead strategically maneuvering its proxy groups across the Middle East like pieces on a chessboard.

This time, spurred by revolutionary slogans and the demands of his supporters, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shifted his strategy and accepted the risk of direct confrontation, launching missile attacks on Israeli territory.

A week ago, during Eid al-Fitr prayers, Khamenei declared that “Israel must be punished and will be punished”. Similarly, commanders of the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards had vowed a “decisive and regrettable response” to Israel’s attacks on Iran’s purported consulate in Syria.

While on the surface the promise of revenge appears to be a strategic mistake, it raises the question as to why the state would pursue such a course of action – despite the international, political, and economic consequences.

The religious approach appears rigid and uncompromising, not open to diverse methods or interpretations. It emphasizes demonstrating resilience, with resistance seen as crucial to victory. In this view, persisting with a “fighting” strategy, even if mistaken, signifies a steadfastness in belief and faith.

The policymaking process in the Islamic Republic, however, does not follow the pattern of rational choice or the model of a prudent actor.

Rationality in foreign policy is a model in which the government acts coherently, and policymaking and decisions are based on clear goals and national interests, defined priorities, sufficient information, and understanding of options to achieve those goals, provided that the likelihood of success and the benefits and costs of each chosen policy are examined and evaluated in advance.

Role of Cognitive Maps in the Decision-Making of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

One characteristic of policymaking in the Islamic Republic is the existence of hierarchical and non-systematic decision-making procedures.

The hierarchical decision-making pattern in the Islamic Republic indicates that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or governments do not have a decisive role in foreign policy policymaking.

Former President Hassan Rouhani and former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif frequently criticized the marginalization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from foreign policy decision-making and expressed concerns about the military’s dominance over diplomacy.

In response to these criticisms, Khamenei asserted in a speech on April 30, 2021, that “foreign policy is determined in high-level forums around the world, not in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs participates in setting policies but is not the decision-maker; it is the executor.”

Khamenei even considers the Supreme National Security Council – a key body responsible for overseeing national security affairs – to have a consultative role rather than a policymaking role. 

Therefore, the primary determinant of foreign policy decisions is Ali Khamenei, as the only leader of the Islamic Republic.

In such decision-making structures, understanding the mindset of the Supreme Leader is key to comprehending the policies and decision-making model of the Islamic Republic system.

In his book “Perception and Misperception in International Politics,” Robert Jervis argues that understanding the cognitive map of the decision-maker can provide insights into their mistakes.

Thus, this means the creation of a diagram of the relationships that the decision-maker perceives to exist between phenomena. By understanding the causal relationships they have in mind, and analyzing their decisions based on these perceptions, we can assess how closely this perceptual understanding aligns with external reality. Additionally, it allows us to determine whether the effects and impacts anticipated by the decision-maker have actually occurred.

But before that, the elements influencing the cognitive perception of the decision-maker must be understood.

Here, our aim is to illustrate the factors influencing Ali Khamenei’s cognitive perception regarding the issue of hostility towards Israel.

These factors constitute the backdrop of the cognitive map of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic:

Islamic Revolution Slogans: The destruction and elimination of Israel are merely slogans and not the primary goal of the Islamic Republic. The existence of Israel serves to justify the Revolutionary Guards’ extraterritorial operations. Enmity with Israel is necessary for the Islamic Republic to establish a sphere of influence in regional politics and gain credibility with the international community. However, this enmity is often used as a cliché and serves the propaganda of the system.

Unchanging religious beliefs: It is a collection of ingrained patterns in the mind of Ayatollah Khamenei that remain unchanged. Khamenei’s interpretations of Quranic and religious matters are subjective and personal. For instance, he asserts that hijab is a religious obligation and unveiling is religiously prohibited, a stance that reflects solely his personal interpretation. In the context of the Israel issue, the “End-time view” serves as a smokescreen, hindering our ability to objectively understand the issues and equations from a rational and logical perspective.

The Eschatological Perspective: The narratives surrounding the end times, particularly concerning the appearance of the Twelfth Imam among Shiites, adopt a geostrategic approach, pinpointing the emergence in Syria and Lebanon. Traditionally, Shiites were expected to await the reappearance passively, but in the new Mahdism, it is argued that they should actively pave the way for the Imam’s return. From an eschatological perspective, one of the actions required for the reappearance is the weakening of Israel and Zionist ideology. Equipping fighters against Israel is considered a religious and unequivocal duty for all Muslims worldwide.

Pressure from allied groups and internal systemic pressures are deemed influential factors in Khamenei’s cognitive perception. In this regard, hardliners, pressure groups, seminaries, the Revolutionary Guards, and proxy groups all wield significant influence in shaping Khamenei’s perception and decision-making process.

International imperatives should also be considered among the factors influencing Khamenei’s cognitive perception. Currently, one of the reasons that have made revenge and emotional reactions costly and challenging for Khamenei is these international imperatives.

If we prioritize Khamenei’s cognitive map, the people’s interests and the economic welfare of Iranians would be relegated to the bottom row. The interests of the people and public satisfaction exert the least influence on Khamenei’s decisions.

All the factors mentioned form the foundation of Khamenei’s cognitive perception. However, it’s important to note that Khamenei’s decisions may not always stem from rational and collective reasoning.

Therefore, despite the significance of international imperatives, the influence of hardliners and Islamic Revolutionary Guards commanders, and the demands of proxy groups for direct engagement with Israel, the system could potentially be led into a significant gamble.

Khamenei in a State of Absolute Inaction

It seems that Khamenei’s pieces on the regional chessboard have entered a state of inaction. Under the influence of his supporters’ demands, he made a strategic mistake by emphasizing revenge. Khamenei has accepted the risk of attack to leave a historical legacy and proudly show the supporters of the Islamic Republic that the sky of Israel was showered with missiles. Even if Israel does not suffer serious damage, they are proud to have been sincere in their promise to punish Israel.

Another question arises: Why did the Islamic Republic feel compelled to attack Israel?

Commander Salami, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, announced after the attack, “We have decided to create a new strategy, and that is from now on, if Israel attacks our interests and personalities anywhere, we will counterattack from the origin, the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Could the reason for this change in strategy be the reluctance of proxy groups during Israel’s attack on the purported Iranian consulate, as these groups had no interest in supporting or incurring costs for the Islamic Republic?