Many commentators (including me) have been worried about the possibility of a new regional war in the Mideast, possibly triggered by a US or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, or by Hizballah launching its massive rocket collection at Israel. But recently I’ve come to think that war is unlikely in the near future.
Everyone pretty much agrees that a preemptive US attack is not in the cards.
[Barack Obama] will not bomb Iran’s nuclear installations for precisely the same reasons that George W. Bush did not bomb Iran’s nuclear installations: Because we don’t know exactly where they all are, because we don’t know whether such a raid could stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few months, and because Iran’s threatened response — against Israelis and U.S. troops, via Iranian allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon — isn’t one we want to cope with at this moment. Nor do we want the higher oil prices that would instantly follow. No American president doing a sober calculation would start a war of choice now, while U.S. troops are actively engaged on two other fronts, and no American president could expect public support for more than a nanosecond.
She left out one other important point: the US is relatively low on the list of those who are directly threatened by the Iranian bomb. Said list looks something like this:
- Sunni Arab regimes (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Gulf states, Jordan), Lebanese Christians, etc.
- The US
So while a nuclear Iran will be very bad for us in the long run — we’ll get those high oil prices anyway — we are not digging up our backyards to build shelters, as they are (figuratively) doing in Israel.
Note that I put the conservative Arab regimes first on the list. Barry Rubin explains, here, that that the Arabs correctly think that whatever happens, they will be losers:
If the United States … or Israel attacks Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons’ facilities, Iran and its allies will unleash a wider conflict … that will suck in the Arabs. But if no one stops Iran from getting weapons, the Arabs will suffer even more from Iranian imperialism, both direct and through fomenting revolutionary upheaval.
What about a preemptive Israeli attack? It’s also unlikely at this stage. Israel knows that an effective attack would be difficult and uncertain, and the Iranian retaliation painful, so it will act only to prevent a direct nuclear threat from Iran. Most analysts do not believe that there is such a threat yet, and there will not be for at least another year.
The warlike talk coming from Ahmadinejad and his proxies has lately been increasing in volume. But this could have two very different meanings:
- Ahmadinejad may think the time is actually ripe for a regional war to eliminate Israel, or
- he is trying to scare the US and Israel in order to deter them from taking military action against his weapons program.
I think the latter is more likely. My reasoning is as follows:
Hizballah could attack Israel, if it gets a green light from Iran. But Israel has made clear to Iran and Syria that they would not get off unscathed if this happens. Since it would not have anything to lose once the rockets start flying, Israel would certainly make a point of hitting Iranian nuclear facilities, which Iran very much wishes to preserve.
More important, if Iran were forced to respond in turn by taking actions that would affect the oil supply like blocking the strait of Hormuz, or if it were to attack American troops in the Mideast, it would be very hard for the US to keep from responding, no matter who is President. While the US would never invade Iran, a sustained bombing campaign against nuclear and other military targets — which the US, unlike Israel, is very capable of waging — would set the Iranian program back years and possibly bring about regime change.
Ahmadinejad understands all this. He also knows that Hizballah, Syria and Hamas together could do a lot of damage but probably do not represent an existential threat to Israel. So it is not in his interest to initiate a conflict at whose end he will find himself much weaker and maybe out of power. Iran controls Hizballah tightly. So, barring accidents, he will keep the reins tight.
What I think is that the Iranian regime’s present goal, above all else, is to obtain the nuclear capability that will enable it to dominate the region, through aggression and subversion under the nuclear umbrella. This is the main fear of the Arab regimes that Rubin alludes to. Therefore a war with Israel — or worse, the US — is not to Iran’s advantage today.
I also don’t think that the peripheral players, like Russia, want to see it either. Russia continues to temporize about delivering the A-300 antiaircraft system that it has sold to Iran, probably because its delivery would make an Israeli attack more likely.
Of course, once Iran has attained its goal of becoming a true nuclear power, everything changes. But that won’t happen this year.
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