Summer is the time for blockbuster movies — and, it seems, for talking up war with Iran. Five years ago, after Baghdad fell so easily, hard-liners were talking about pushing the fight on to Tehran. Two years ago, Israel and Hezbollah fought a proxy war, leading to speculation that their patrons, the United States and Iran respectively, might well find themselves on the battlefield. Last year, Iran was testing missiles, and the Bush administration was taking a tough line about Iran’s move toward nuclear proliferation. This year, with the end of George Bush’s presidency close at hand, speculation is rife that Israel, with tacit or explicit American assistance, might seize the opportunity to bomb Iranian nuclear installations before a new and possibly less sympathetic president takes office.
The prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran before the next president’s inauguration in January is not just the stuff of airport thrillers. Much of the Israeli military establishment and Israeli public currently believes that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat. This gives Israel a motive for action much stronger than that of the U.S., for whom an Iranian bomb would primarily be a blow to our interests in the gulf region. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or whoever emerges as his successor in September might well be prepared to take risks that would not be worth it for the United States, especially given the vulnerability of our troops in Iraq.
If Israel decides to stage an attack on Iran, would the United States try to stop it? Conventional wisdom holds that Israel’s long-range bombers would need to refuel in the air above Iraq, which would require American acquiescence. The Israelis might rationally gamble that when push came to shove, the U.S. would turn a blind eye. After all, in the beady-eyed but inexorable logic of international security affairs, the Israelis know that the U.S. knows that Iran knows that it would be a bad move to go after the U.S. in retaliation for an Israeli attack. Any Iranian movement against U.S. assets would give President Bush just about the only domestically viable political excuse for bombing Iran that is possible to imagine. Because that would put Iran at war with the United States, not just Israel, Iran might choose to hold back. That likelihood, coupled with President Bush’s visceral support for Israel, might be enough reason for the administration to tolerate an Israeli attack that did not too directly implicate the United States. Given the uncertainty surrounding a potential Obama administration, this autumn may be Israel’s last and best chance to go after Iran’s nuclear capability.
Continue reading “Buildup to the Next War?”
Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.