What are the prospects of war over Iran? The hi-tech arms and intelligence trade between Washington and its regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, is a guide.
The rhetoric of war over Israel and Iran has fluctuated wildly over the past year The most recent manifestations are claims from Israeli sources that sustained bombing raids over several days would be preceded by systematic cyberattacks that would sow utter confusion among the Iranians and make it impossible for them to mount a coherent response.
This may sound plausible, given the damage inflicted already by the Stuxnet and Flame virus-assaults. Equally, though, the Iranians will have thought through this scenario and devised appropriate responses that minimise inherent weaknesses in their command and control.
The latter may include substantial pre-delegation of authority to local commanders, both in Iran and elsewhere, to take actions without further orders. One example might be closing the Strait of Hormuz, another might be paramilitary action against Saudi oil facilities. There are many other possibilities that reach beyond the region (see "America's war on Iran: the plan revealed", 30 June 2012).
Beyond the military talk is the political dimension. The Israeli cabinet is divided and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu faces considerable opposition from within Israel’s security and intelligence agencies. These agencies foresee a long-term conflict with unpredictable consequences; after a war starts, they believe that Iran will be determined to acquire a nuclear deterrent with utmost speed, whatever the difficulties. This, in turn, will require further Israeli attacks, again with unknown consequences.
Within this broad debate, some analysts in Israel and the United States argue that Iran will reach a point of invulnerability as it hardens its nuclear plants; from this assessment, others draw the conclusion that the optimum time for an Israeli strike is before the US election on 6 November 2012. Their worry is that if Barack Obama wins a second term he may use the first couple of years to put serious pressure on Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinians by relinquishing most of the occupied territories. The president might even open up new diplomatic avenues with Iran. Hence the need to take action now.
In light of the many factors involved, predictions are rash. All that can be said on the possibility of war is that there is a greater risk in the period before early November, with a potential easing of tensions immediately afterwards if that risk is avoided.
The arms signal
Beyond these calculations, it is also worth looking at the peril of war over a rather longer timescale. Here, three factors are particularly relevant. The first is that Iran is simply not responding as expected to sanctions and other pressures, in spite of their severity. The summit of non-aligned states in Tehran on 26-31 August 2012 serves the regime's political ambition (albeit revealing intra-state tensions, such as between Egypt and Syria), while on the technical side there are reliable reports that Tehran is enhancing its uranium-enrichment programme (see David E Sanger, “Signs Suggest Iran Is Speeding Up Work on Nuclear Programme”, New York Times, 23 August 2012).
This involves installing more centrifuges in the deeply-protected Fordo site and concentrating on boosting low-enriched uranium (around 4%) to medium enrichment (20%) (see “Iran installed 350 new underground centrifuges”, Jerusalem Post, 29 August 2012). This falls far short of the 85%+ enrichment required for bomb-grade material, so it can still be claimed to constitute fuel for the aging Tehran research reactor. Thus it does not mean that the regime is actually taking the nuclear-weapon route, but it does mean that this would be an easier task if the decision were made.
The second factor, frequently forgotten, is that if Israel were to attack Iran, it would do so effectively as a joint US/Israel operation - even if it was claimed to be acting independently. This is simply because of the remarkably close integration of US and Israeli forces that has developed over several decades, and has been even more refined in recent years.
The extent of the integration was greatly boosted by the US need to get Israeli help in pacifying Iraq in 2003 (see “After Saddam, no respite”, [19 December 2003]); the subsequent development of close training links (see “A tale of two towns” [21 June 2007]); the strategic intimacy revealed by the Gaza assault in 2008-09 (see “Gaza: the Israel-United States connection” [ 7 January 2009]); and the current upgrading of Israel's air-tanker fleet, a key force-multiplier in any decision to wage war on Iran (see David Eshel, “Tanking Up”, Aviation Week, 20 August 2012).
Perhaps most significant of all in this respect is that the United States now has a permanent military force in Israel that is essential for the defence of that country. Around a hundred US service personnel run the X-band radar complex on Mount Keren in the Negev, a facility that can track football-sized objects nearly 3,000 miles away and can easily detect a much larger missile-launch from Iran (see, for example: Karl Vick & Aaron J Klein, “How a U.S. Radar Station in the Negev Affects a Potential Israel-Iran Clash”, Time, 30 May 2012). The X-band radar is directly integrated into Israel's missile-defence system, which itself has been developed in close collaboration with US defence corporations.
If these two factors are combined - Iran's determination at least to have the option of going nuclear, and the hand-in-hand Israel-US relationship - the conclusion must be that any conflict between Israel and Iran would, from the start, directly involve Washington.
The Saudi factor
The third factor to be taken into account is the rapid build-up of military hardware in the western Gulf states facing Iran. Arms exports to the region from the US in 2011 were hugely boosted to a value of $66.3 billion (more than Britain's entire defence budget); over half of this money was spent by Saudi Arabia alone.
The current Saudi projects include buying eighty-five F-15 multi-role strike-aircraft and upgrading another seventy, as well as missiles and logistic support. Even the older Saudi F-15s are far more advanced than anything Iran can deploy. Meanwhile, other states in the region are part of the arms race, including the United Arab Emirates with missile-defence purchases and Oman buying eighteen F-16 strike-aircraft (see Thom Shanker, “U.S. Arms Sales Make Up Most of Global Market”, New York Times, 26 August 2012).
But it is Saudi Arabia that really counts: its spending on arms imports from the United States amounts to around four times Iran’s entire military budget. This aspect is both significant and almost always ignored. Iran may be motivated towards nuclear weapons by Israel's existing nuclear force and by United States military power in the region; but the Saudi dimension is a powerful additional inducement to Tehran at least to have the potential to develop a nuclear capability.
With luck, and maybe even some political wisdom, a war between Israel and Iran in the coming months could yet be avoided. Beyond that, any longer-term solution will depend on Saudi attitudes far more than almost anyone currently appreciates.