Thursday, March 08, 2012

An October Surprise: Will Israel attack Iran?

By Ali Ezzatyar 

The question of whether Israel or America will attack Iran has had a shelf life that is unheard of in international affairs, and the factors that weigh on a yes or no answer to the question have changed surprisingly little over the last ten years. But there is one variable that could alter everything this year: November.

Prior to, and in the early stages of the Iraq War, there was the notion in foreign policy circles that America could launch a military attack on Iran itself. America had an interventionist president driven by perceived ideals that made Iran seem like a perfect target. Such an attack would have been primarily designed to ensure the failure of Iran's nuclear program; the larger question was whether George W. Bush would try to take it all a step further and force regime change in Tehran. These were ideas being discussed as early as 2002; it wouldn't be farfetched to say an attack on Iran felt as imminent then as it does now.

The more "Mission Accomplished" became the biggest American foreign policy quagmire in generations, however, the less likely an American attack became. And somewhere around when the 3000th American military serviceperson was killed in Iraq, the idea that America could attack Iran for any reason had vanished into seeming impossibility. Until now, the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the 2008 election of a president critical of recent American interventionism, continues to hamstring any notion that the United States could embark on a military venture against a bigger, more powerful, more complicated Iranian foe.

It was about the same time, during Iraq's most tumultuous moments of the last decade, that talk of a unilateral Israeli strike became prevalent. Israel has always been considered the primary beneficiary of such an attack, and hence the idea that their highly capable military could go it alone was always feasible although not preferable to an overwhelming American strike. Until recently, however, there was the notion that Israel would not act without America's approval. This was because the success-to-repercussions ratio for Israel was poor, but also because the chaos of war in Iraq and Afghanistan made intervention in Iran dangerous to America, Israel's most important ally, no matter who the attacking party was.

And since George W. Bush was seen as one of the most Israel-friendly presidents ever, America's hamstring was necessarily Israel's. The logic was that if Israel attacked Iran without America's go-ahead and help, America could get dragged into a third war, which could ultimately serve to tarnish U.S.-Israeli relations permanently. George W. Bush was thought to have put his neck on the line sufficiently for Israel, and we assumed then and know now that he drew a red line around Iran. A third war in the Middle East for George W. Bush would have been disastrous, even more definitively writing off George W. Bush as one of America's worst presidents, and ensuring failure in the 2008 presidential elections for any Republican candidate. After Obama's election, the writing was well and clearly on the wall for Israel: we are not attacking Iran, and neither are you. 

So why the history lesson?  If the foregoing is mostly true, I think we can draw two important conclusions:

First, not enough has changed elsewhere to make an American attack on Iran any more likely in the short term as it was five years ago. Afghanistan is increasingly unstable while Iraq's direction remains a huge question mark. Furthermore, Pakistan has come to resemble more and more an ally-turned-enemy, and any fallout from a breakdown in relations there could be catastrophic. There is just too much risk involved with an attack on Iran.

To the contrary, and more importantly, this is the most temperate climate for an Israeli attack on Iran we have seen. There are some obvious reasons, such as unprecedented Iranian isolation, Iran's reportedly nearing critical stages in its nuclear development, and recent accusations of assassinations of Israelis abroad. But there is something much more profound from an Israeli perspective.

A plurality of Israelis believe that Barack Obama is the least Israel-friendly president in American history. They harbor suspicions about his intentions in the region and generally believe he may abandon Israel in ways unprecedented to presidents before him.

An attack on Iran this year is unquestionably dangerous to Obama's reelection. There is no scenario where a unilateral attack by Israel will not hurt Obama's chances. We probably do not need to discuss how a failed attack, the most likely scenario of a unilateral Israeli strike according to most analysts, would be disastrous for U.S. interests and the president personally. But even a successful Israeli attack would wreak havoc on financial markets, on American interests in the region, and portray Obama as a man with no control over a key region for U.S. interests. This is the most likely scenario for an unlikely Republican win in November 2012.

Even if the American public is critical of an Israeli strike, the hawkish Republican candidate-turned-president, who has been distinguishing himself all year long on the principle of being forceful with Iran, comes to power with Israel's interests in mind. It is win-win for Israel.

If Israel waits long enough to ensure there is no sanction from an Obama administration for its attacking Iran, but not until after the elections themselves, it can both perform an operation it has been planning for years, and one which it sees as vital to its long-term survival, while supplanting the president of its largest benefactor that it wants to see gone anyway. Could Israel be planning an October, or perhaps August / September surprise? It wouldn't be the first time Iran has been used to win a U.S. election. (Remember this one?)

The odds of an Israeli attack on Iran are the highest they have been in ten years.

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