America, Israel, Iran: a six-week crisis

An interplay of domestic politics, military pressures and regional tensions means there is an acute danger of war before the United States presidential election.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 September 2012

The risk of an Israeli war with Iran, which has ebbed and flowed over the past year, will be at a pitch over the six weeks to the United States election on 6 November 2012. If war is avoided until then, the danger may rapidly recede. But the world must first survive perhaps one of the most significant periods since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

The increased peril stems from three elements:

* United States domestic politics

* developments around Syria and Iran

* the possibility of an untoward crisis tipping into conflict.

The presidential election

The first element relates to the way that the more hawkish elements in Israel and their supporters in the US greatly fear Barack Obama's re-election. In particular, they anticipate that in the first two years of his second term, he could feel unburdened enough to take a progressive stance on both Palestine and Iran - and to challenge Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The events of recent days present these groups with a dilemma. The revelation of Mitt Romney's disparaging remarks about the "47%", his dismissal of Palestinian attitudes and the hopes of peace with Israel, and his "crazed fanatic" mental flight regarding Iran may all at some level accord with conservative instincts, but to very many Americans less fixed in their views are likely to appear extreme and to suggest incompetence in both domestic and foreign policy. The immediate political fallout indicates that Romney's chances of election are diminishing, and that to reverse the tide he may need an unexpected boost and/or Obama to run into trouble.

Some right-wing observers urged the Republican candidate to respond by reorienting the campaign debate from the economy towards foreign policy - and by focusing especially on Obama's supposed weakness in the face of diverse middle-eastern threats. This course would be equally welcome to domestic and Israeli hardliners: it would allow Romney to argue that Iran had to be confronted and Obama wasn't up to it, justify the Israeli case that a strike against Iran was necessary, change the election atmosphere, and - when oil prices rocketed after the bombs fell - give Obama a huge domestic headache.

It will be hard for the strategy to work, not least because American voters regard economic issues as paramount and in any case could in a military crisis turn towards the leader they know. But at a time when many Israeli hawks see Iran hardening or dispersing its nuclear facilities, and thus moving beyond Israel's sights, their and their US allies' determination to pursue a radical course should not be underestimated (see "America, Israel, Iran: the war options", 7 September 2012).

The Syria-Iran axis

The second element relates to Syria, but is connected to the wider region. It is now clear that Iran is becoming much more involved in supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime, in two distinct ways: by increasing direct military aid in the form of deployment of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and (perhaps more importantly) by receiving permission from Nouri al-Maliki's regime in Baghdad to allow overflight rights to Syria. Both contravene all Washington's diplomatic efforts, and make Iran-Syria links far easier (see Michael R Gordon, "Iran Supplying Syrian Military via Iraqi Airspace", New York Times, 4 September 2012).

These shifts, which have so far attracted little attention in the United States, mean that any escalation of violence in Syria will allow the Romney team an opportunity to target Obama's alleged softness (symbolised too by his precipitate withdrawal from Iraq). Here too, the political change of pace would be welcome on the Israeli right.

The AIM risk

The third element is the problem of crisis-escalation, referred to in earlier columns in this series as the "AIMs" - accidents, incidents and mavericks - any one of which can turn a crisis into a war (see "America, Israel, Iran: mediation vs war", 16 February 2012).

This is particularly so with the current build-up of United States military forces in the region. It looks likely that the US navy is going to deploy a third aircraft-carrier battle-group in the region, coinciding with twelve days of naval exercises involving thirty countries (see "U.S. and allies hold Gulf military exercise", Reuters, 17 September 2012).

The focus is on mine-clearance, an area of naval operations in which the US navy is relatively weak. The main other players are Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE; the first of these contributes four minesweepers, a logistics ship and its most modern Type-45 destroyer, HMS Diamond. These exercises will be followed closely by a major series by the Iranians that stretch well into October. Over that whole period the AIM risk will be particularly high.

The other way

Together, these three factors guarantee weeks of tension, when the chance of confrontation is as high as at any time since a comparable crisis in 2006. There are also two more positive notes. The first is that the European Union and Iran, in the persons of the foreign-affairs representative Catherine Ashton and the envoy Saeed Jalili, held informal but useful talks in Istanbul on 19 September 2012 in an effort to restart the main "P5+1" negotiations. The second is that if war is avoided and Barack Obama wins a second term, there will then be intense pressure on Israel to refrain from war, and Iran will soon reach the point where its nuclear facilities are vulnerable only to US attack.

If that point is reached, everything changes. The west will have to adopt an entirely new approach to Iran, of the kind President Obama might be prepared to embrace. This prospect accentuates just how much is in the balance over the next six weeks.

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