As we gear up for the long winded and jingoistic zeal of the American electoral season, there are plenty of reasons to worry that international conflict could once again break out in the Middle East. After all 2011 and long Arab Spring have revealed new fault lines throughout the Middle East, and the very fragility located at the core of the regional pax Americana established by the signing of the Camp David Accord in 1979. As Americans rejoice in the relative success of their involvement in the Libya mission, fidget nervously about the outcome of Egypt’s elongated electoral season, ignore the internal political conflicts playing out in Iraq after our withdrawal, and fret indecisively about the ongoing civil wars festering unattended in Syria and Yemen, to say nothing of the border conflict between the two Sudans, most Americans attention has shifted to the Gulf and America’s standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The ongoing reality television series that the Republican debates have become, feature nightly invocations about the existential danger that Iran poses to this nation, even as bluster over new sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum industry and saber rattling in the Straits of Hormuz highlight the danger of war.
It is in this climate that a certain pessimism has set in amongst Middle East watchers. Over drinks at one of New York’s cooler than thou bars: Bathtub gin, I recently met two friends of mine in town from Geneva. One of whom has now settled in New York doing publicity, the other a former al Jazeera reporter and now a thriller writer, who was happy to engage in tales about her most recent trip to Beirut. The punch line she delivered in no uncertain terms, a consensus opinion of the Beirut nightlife scene, was that not only is Syria going to hell, but so is the whole Middle East, and in many ways it was hard to argue that 2012 will be kind to the region. Undoubtedly, the aftershocks of 2011 will continue to be felt, and outside of the widening of the political sphere, which was not a small achievement, few if any of the cleavages in the region have been bridged. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to fester, as does a rising awareness of sectarian differences within societies, as well as, political cleavage between states. One reaction to political change has been the strengthening of political organization, such as the Gulf Cooperation Community, devoted to resisting change rather than facilitating it. Add to all of these concerns, the very likely possibility of failed states taking shape in Syria and Yemen, added uncertainty in Israel’s security environment and an American attempt to redeploy its forces towards Asia, and continued volatility is all but assured.
The question then is not whether or not the Middle East will be tumultuous in 2012, I believe we can rest assured that it will be, but whether or not their will be a catastrophic event. Catastrophe is perhaps an overly vague term, so lets be a bit more specific. I believe the odds are better than not that there will not be inter-state conflict in the Middle East in 2012. The two most likely locations of interstate war are Israel-Lebanon, see 2006, or Israel and Iran with or without American support. Yet both conflicts while potentially related are unlikely to breakout into out right war, because the consequences and costs have become too high.
And the rhetoric in support of war appears to have reached truly unprecedented levels amongst some constituencies in the United States. For an truly outrageous example, see the story of the publisher of a Jewish newspaper calling for Obama’s assassination. The intellectual consensus amongst the policy making elite appears to be opposed to the outbreak of open conflict.
In order to understand why the smart money remains opposed to war with Iran lets turn to one potential scenario of how such a conflict might play out.
Because the consequences of an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites have been played out over and over again by strategists, it is possible to turn to a number of very detailed accounts of how such an event might unfold, in order to build our own sketch of how such a conflict might develop. One of the best, though now slightly out of date scenarios, was conducted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy under the direction of Kenneth Pollack in February 2010.
Though a lot has changed during the intervening years. In particular, there has been the escalation of a major covert war inside of Iran, Syria is in civil war, and while Iran has not begun a clear nuclear weapon program, the sophistication of its nuclear energy program has become clearer as has the amount of popular support the program enjoys.
The new year began with the Obama Administration and its European allies pushing for the adoption of sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports. These sanctions were designed to prohibit transactions with the Central Bank of Iran. Intelligence officials believe that these sanctions could reduce Iran’s revenue by more than a third. Already on the eve of European Union sanctions on the imports of Iranian crude oil Iran has suffered from rising inflation. The Iranian rial this year has lost 40% of its value, and even more critically, wild fluctuations in the value of the Iranian currency have made it hard for many businesses to survive.
Pollack and David Milliband both argue that the possibility of a miscalculation is incredibly high, and that as the covert war escalates and an increasingly aggressive posture and signals are adopted, the likelihood of an unintended conflict grows. There is an incredible amount of truth in the assumption that without serious restraint–after all four scientists have been assassinated in the last year and our involvement with dissident groups attempting to overthrow the regime has grown–the possibility that we could find ourselves in a situation where we are fighting an open war will continue to grow.
Yet, the events of the last year have made the conditions for such an attack less auspicious not more so. In order to understand why we must examine a scenario of how such an event would likely play out.
A limited attack by Israel would seriously degrade Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, but it would not be able to destroy Iran’s ability to retaliate or to reconstitute its program. To prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program would take a sustained series of assaults over many months, a pattern that is surely unrealistic. A strike by the United States directly from its forward positions in the Persian Gulf would be more likely to destroy a significant part of Iran’s command and control structure, as well as its military capacity, but even then it is doubtful that the regime could be overthrown through an air campaign alone or that the Iranian military could be decimated. Additionally, the likelihood of the United States launching an air campaign against Iranian targets during the remainder of 2012 without direct provocation is extremely low.
The best case scenario for an attack against Iran would include surgical strikes against Iran’s nuclear energy or weapon facilities and then rely on deterrence to prevent Iran from escalating the conflict. The goal would be to ensure a contained conflict largely on terms dictated by the aggressor. However, an equally or perhaps more likely scenario foresees Iran responding to a strike against its nuclear facilities by retaliating either directly or through proxies, forcing an escalation of the conflict and denying the aggressor the right to define the boundaries of the conflict. The most likely strategy for Iranian policymakers to change the terms of a conflict in which they are conventionally over-matched, would be for them to export the conflict from a purely Iranian field of combat to new arenas. The four possible arenas in which Iran could spread conflict are the Levant (Lebanon and Syria), the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. A direct escalation in the Persian Gulf would bring about a uncontrolled and dramatic escalation in the conflict, particularly an overwhelming response by American forces stationed in the Gulf. Escalations in Iraq and Afghanistan would also primarily target American forces, and while extremely aggravating to American interest, an escalation in violence in these regions would take a long period to sufficiently impact the United States.
The scenario concocted by the Saban Center focused on how the conflict would escalate from an air assault over Iran into a possible ground war in Lebanon. The trigger being Hizbullah’s or other Iranian proxies decision to assist Iran by launching wave after wave of rocket attacks against northern Israel. Building on the lessons of 2006, we know that Israel cannot counter such attacks through an air campaign alone. Nor would a limited invasion of southern Lebanon suffice. Though given adequate time, punitive measures short of a major ground campaign might eventually compel an end to the barrage against northern Israel, it is extremely unlikely that the Israeli public would tolerate an the necessary period of insecurity for such an outcome to be reached. Therefore, it is extremely likely that the Israeli Defense Forces would feel compelled to enter Lebanon, engaging in a major land campaign. In 2010, the Saban Center predicted that such a move would result in an unpredictable quagmire, for which the IDF would be poorly prepared. A military occupation would be extremely taxing, and the international attention would make it very difficult for the IDF to operate freely. The possibility of atrocities might invite the involvement of additional regional actors, the most problematic of which would be Turkey. The IDF is essentially built as a strike force, and the likelihood of an early or decisive victory in an extended Lebanon campaign is quite low, yet, eliminating rocket fire or decimating Hizbullah would require a substantial period of occupation.
Since 2010, the outlook for the success of an Israeli campaign in Lebanon has severely darkened. Even though Assad’s regime in Syria was the major conduit through which Iranian support passed to various groups in Lebanon, the regime’s very dictatorial and highly centralized nature made it vulnerable to deterrence. It had always been assumed that Hafez, and later his son Bashar, wanted to survive, and therefore could be counted on to prevent a massive escalation of conflict in Lebanon, and assuredly the spread of conflict to Syria. Yet, one wonders whether a weakened Assad regime in Syria could prevent a major war in Lebanon from spilling across the border? And if it would still be in Syria’s interest to limit conflict in the Levant? The possibility of an expanded arena of conflict, which includes not only Lebanon but also Syria must be a nightmare for IDF military planners. The strain of a pacification campaign would pose unpredictable obstacles to both the Isreali military, but also the Israeli economy, and the lack of a centralized government or military complex to deter would neutralize the overwhelming conventional superiority of the IDF.
The importance of resolving the Syrian dilemma for Israeli military and intelligence planners was recently recognized by the wily former Mossad chief Efraim Halvey in a New York Times column last week. Halvey, who for years was the primary interlocutor between the Israeli government and King Hussein of Jordan, argues that the Assad regime is finished and that a return to the old devil’s bargain of stability in exchange for support for the personal rule of the Assad family cannot be reconstructed. Halvey goes on to argue that the battle now is not just a battle to get rid of Assad, but to assure a stable Syria that is friendly to Israel and hostile to Iran. A concern for Israel, because he rightly points out that it is very possible for Iranian influence in Syria to outlast the regime.
However, even under the most favorable circumstances for Israel, such a scenario will take time, perhaps months to become clear. Civil War in Syria appears to be on the horizon. A good friend of mine, Karam Nachar recently declared in a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, that the “Tahrir Square moment” has passed in Syria, and that the time of armed struggle has arrived. In addition there are daily reports of arms flooding into the country and the development of more sophisticated attacks. Even in Libya months after the fighting ceased the problem of militias and establishing a strong government remains, how much worse will it be in Syria during the coming months.
The unpredictability of politics within the Levant make it extremely unlikely that Israeli military planners will risk igniting a tinderbox in their own region. The consequences of war are becoming harder and harder to figure with each passing month, and the allure of a strike on Iran rest entirely in the aggressor being able to control the terms of conflict and to define the arena of battle. It is very likely that aside from the ongoing covert war within Iran there will be very little appetite during the remainder of 2012 for a sharp escalation.
 For a report of the retribution that followed the Libyan operation see: Joshua Hammer. “Vengence in Libya,” The New York Review of Books. January 12, 2012. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jan/12/vengeance-libya/ and for more details about the the spread of violence as former Libyan forces congeal in the northern Sahel see various news reports such as the following: http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/mali-military-says-47-killed-in-northern-clashes/ and see Martin Vogel. “Toureg Rebels attack town in north Mali,” Associated Press. January 17, 2012. http://hosted2.ap.org/APDEFAULT/cae69a7523db45408eeb2b3a98c0c9c5/Article_2012-01-17-AF-Mali-Rebels/id-e82c647f40e140f8b802dc794aac888f
 Chemi Shalev. “Uproar after Jewish American Newspaper Publisher suggests Israel assassinate Barack Obama,” Haaretz. January 21, 2012. http://www.haaretz.com/news/international/uproar-after-jewish-american-newspaper-publisher-suggests-israel-assassinate-barack-obama-1.408429
 Josh Rogin. “Bush’s CIA Director: We Determined attacking Iran was a Bad Idea,” Foreign Policy. January 19, 2012. http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/01/19/bush_s_cia_director_we_determined_attacking_iran_was_a_bad_idea?hidecomments=yes see also Colin H. Kahl. “Not Time to Attack Iran: Why War Should be the Last Resort,” Foreign Affairs. January 17, 2012. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137031/colin-h-kahl/not-time-to-attack-iran?page=show
 Kenneth M. Pollack. “Osiraq Redux: A Crisis Simulation of an Israeli Strike on the Iranian Nuclear Program,” Middle East Memo. No. 15. (February 2010) http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2010/02_iran_israel_strike_pollack.aspx
 Roula Khalaf and James Blitz. “Storm warning in the Strait,” Financial Times. January 23, 2012.
 David Miliband and Nader Mousavizadeh. “Risks of Sleepwalking into War with Iran,” Financial Times. December 1, 2011. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/52757f10-1b69-11e1-85f8-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1kAc06JSo
 Efraim Halvey. “Iran’s Achilles’ Heel,” The New York Times. February 7, 2012.