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Israel, the United States and Iran: the tipping-point

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The resignation of Admiral William Fallon, the commander of United States Central Command (Centcom) on 11 March 2008 brings the issue of a confrontation between the George W Bush administration and Iran suddenly back on the security agenda. Most analysts had thought that the risk of war had subsided with the publication on on 3 December 2007 of the US national-intelligence estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran was probably not now developing nuclear weapons. There were various qualifications and provisos in that report - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities - but it still appeared to limit the administration's war option by removing the main argument.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Fallon's resignation followed a magazine profile that made clear his differences with the president and Dick Cheney, principally his own robust view that war with Iran would be counterproductive to US security interests (see "The Man Between War and Peace", Esquire, 11 March 2008). Nevertheless, most opinion in European capitals and in the US state department, and even in many parts of the Pentagon, is that Fallon is broadly right. So has anything really changed?

The war scenario

An earlier column in this series summarised the dangers of war: they include the wide-ranging Iranian options for responding in Iraq and western Gulf states, the potential for a rapid rise in oil prices, the likelihood that Iran really would go all out for nuclear weapons - thus necessitating further US bombing campaigns (see "America and Iran: the spark of war", 20 September 2007). The conclusion was that the awareness of such concerns may well have a salutary effect on the more hawkish elements in Washington, but that other factors might still lead to a war. These could include a deliberate act of aggression by one of two groups: Revolutionary Guard radicals anxious to re-establish their standing within Iranian society, or attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities (strongly supported as that would be the more militant backers of Israel within the Bush administration).

All of these issues are equally relevant six months after this analysis was presented. Admiral Fallon's precipitous disappearance from the scene now raises an old question in a new context: does it make war with Iran more likely during the closing months of the Bush administration? The answer is a guarded yes - with the qualification that Fallon's resignation is not itself the main factor in shaping the outcom, since it remains unlikely that the Bush administration would deliberately and openly start a war. Rather, war - if it occurs - would stem from other events (see "Iran and Pakistan: danger signals", 10 January 2008).

Any attack on Iran that occurred before November 2008 would have a considerable impact on the presidential election. A scenario of the following kind illustrates the point.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 and why a new security paradigm is needed.

A conflict develops in September or October and is raging in the run-up to the election on 4 November. At this stage, the main involvement will be by the United States air force supported by the US navy. The overstretched army and marine corps will have little initial involvement.

The war, it's important to emphasise, might not have been started by the Bush administration - it could been triggered in some other way. But whatever its origin, US tactics would quickly acquire a familiar aspect. In the war's opening few weeks, extensive US bombing raids would cripple Iranian nuclear facilities, air defences, command-and-control systems and key facilities of the navy and Revolutionary Guard. At this stage, US military power would be so massive that Washington would appear to be "winning". This was the situation in the first eight weeks of the Afghanistan war in late 2001, and in the first six weeks of the Iraq war up to Bush's "mission accomplished" speech on 1 May 2003 (see "The long war", 3 April 2003).

A US war against Iran, and especially one that is ostensibly not of its own choosing, will grab all the domestic as well as global headlines as the election reaches its peak. The crisis will reinforce the argument that an essential qualification of America's new president is an impeccable military background to guide the country safely through. Step forward the obvious choice: Senator John McCain (who plans to burnish his security credentials during a trip to Europe and the middle east in the coming week).

This scenario does not mean that a war will be manufactured by the US leadership - but it does imply that if a conflict does break out, the Republicans will be the likely political beneficiaries.

The uncertainties of the current situation do not exclude (for example) the orchestration of some kind of border incident to elicit an Iranian overreaction, thus leading to a major conflict; or a provocation by obliging elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Both are plausible, though neither is likely - another "Gulf of Tonkin" incident would be just too obvious, and a certain recovery of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's position might caution rather than incite the more intransigent forces among Revolutionary Guard supporters from seeking early confrontation with the United States. Whether the elections to the majlis (parliament) on 14 March 2008 affects Ahmadinejad's political room for manoeuvre, or the wider balance of power inside Iran, remains to be seen.

The Israeli factor

A vital component in this assessment of the military-strategic-political equation following Admiral Fallon's departure is Israel. What do its leaders want to do, think they can do, and seek to make happen with regard to Iran? Its extensive use of force in Gaza - in which over a a hundred Palestinians were killed in the five day to 3 March 2008 - may be part of a process of ratcheting up regional tensions (see Kaveh L Afrasiabi, "Israel raises the ante against Iran", Asia Times, 14 March 2008). Iran's increasing regional status, combined with a frank Israeli disbelief in the conclusions of the NIE assessment, means that there is real concern in the Ehud Olmert government that Iran cannot be stopped in its nuclear pursuits by diplomatic or economic means alone.

Israeli observers are as uncertain as any others about the outcome of the United States election. Of the three possible victors, John McCain and Hillary Clinton are broadly pro-Israel (though lacking the "end days" mentality of George W Bush and some of his key supporters, which can envisage a confrontation with Iran and other enemies of Israel as part of God's plan). Barack Obama has less of a known, reliable profile on Israel and its policies in the region, and there is for some the worry that if elected he might weaken the US's unstinting pro-Israel stance (though the Democrats' leading contender is covering his bases; see "Obama calls Livni, back's Israel's right for self-defense" [Ynet, 11 March 2008]).

Israel has not always had such conflictual relations with Iran as at present (see Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war", 28 October 2005). But the dangers of the current period are palpable, and calculable: for Israel, the time for a war with Iran ends in November 2008. Before then, any kind of Israeli air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would result in Iranian action against US units in Iraq, especially by the Revolutionary Guard. This would be certain to invite a much greater US military assault that would cripple Iran to Israel's advantage. A unilateral Israeli move might not be hugely popular across the United States (and an opinion-poll in December 2007 found that two-thirds of Israelis would also oppose this course); but if it followed major Hamas or Hizbollah actions against Israel, then it could be represented as pre-empting a larger but linked threat.

What might cause such actions? More Israeli military operations as or more intensive than those seen in Gaza could well do it.

The moving finger

If - to continue the scenario planning - there is to be a war with Iran this year, instigated by Israel, two key factors are relevant:

* It would aid John McCain, the Republican candidate in the election
* It would need, in order to have this effect, to be started before the beginning of November.

None of this makes war a certainty or even highly probable. But it is worth noting here that US neo-conservatives - a reliable bellweather of political sentiment among those who will make the key decisions over whether to attack Iran - are deeply concerned about Iran's current diplomatic manoeuvres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's much-publicised welcome in Baghdad during his visit of 2-3 March was hard enough, as it underlined the developing links between Iran and Iraq (see "The war over there", 3 March 2008); equally tough for the neocons to witness has been the high-profile visit to Tehran by the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on 11-12 March. This followed Indonesia's abstention in the vote in the United Nations Security Council on the third tranche of sanctions against Iran (see "Islamic world can become a global power", Tehran Times, 12 March 2008); it has resulted in multiple agreements between the two countries, thus giving Iran another link to east Asia to complement its extensive relationship with China.

From a neo-conservative perspective, the prospect of George W Bush leaving office in circumstances where Iran is a rising power with nuclear potential is just not acceptable. Admiral Fallon's resignation does not make a huge difference, yet it removes one irritant from the scene. That alone makes a war with Iran marginally more likely. But the real determinant remains the Israeli government and what it chooses to do in the next six months.


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