Wag the Dog? Odds of War With Iran Now at 36%

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Our expert panel gauges the chance that the United States or Israel will strike Iran in the next year.


36-iwd.PNG We've assembled a high profile team of experts from the policy world, academia, and journalism to periodically predict the odds of conflict, including: Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Golnaz Esfandiari, Azar Gat, Jeffrey Goldberg, Amos Harel, Ephraim Kam, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Matthew Kroenig, John Limbert, Valerie Lincy, James Lindsay, Marc Lynch, Gary Milhollin, Trita Parsi, Paul Pillar, Barry Rubin, Karim Sadjadpour, Kenneth Timmerman, Shibley Telhami, Stephen Walt, and Robin Wright. For more on the Iran War Dial and the panelists, visit our FAQ page.

This month, the average estimate of the odds of war was 36 percent -- little changed from May's figure of 37 percent. Earlier talks in Istanbul and Baghdad produced some cautious optimism. But the latest round of negotiations in Moscow created a more somber mood, with no evidence of a breakthrough and no date set for a new round of discussions. Meanwhile, international sanctions are set to tighten further on July 1, when the European Union introduces an embargo on Iranian oil. And the shadow war continues to loom among the United States, Israel, and Iran, with new evidence emerging of U.S. cyber-war against Iran, and Iranian complicity in bomb plots last February against Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand, and Georgia.

I invited panelists to offer a brief comment on the likelihood of war with Iran. Matt Kroenig suggests that to understand the true chance of conflict we must consider the probability of alternative endgames.

War is a rare event. Analysts who estimate that the odds of war are low, therefore, will often be correct. When considering the Iranian nuclear crisis, however, the other possible outcomes appear to be at least as unlikely. Is it likely that the international community and Iran will come to a mutually satisfactory diplomatic settlement over Iran's nuclear program? Is it likely that the international community, including the United States and Israel, will simply stand by as Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability in the coming months? If we answer these questions in the negative, then we must increase our estimate of the probability of armed conflict.

The causes of war are like the causes of death -- there are many. And states do not always act according to their strategic interests. Shibley Telhami describes how rhetoric and domestic politics can propel Iran, Israel, and the United States toward the precipice (more here on this line of argument).

The prospects of war with Iran are not merely a function of strategic calculations but also of politics (Israeli, American, and Iranian), and of the way our discourse frames the Iranian nuclear issue, which is itself a product of both politics and strategy. The Israeli framing of the potential Iranian nuclear weapons threat as "existential" and the American consensus (among Democrats and Republicans) that Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons and that such a potential is essentially the greatest strategic threat facing the United States puts both countries on a slippery slope toward war -- regardless of whether or not war is strategically warranted.

Even if Israeli leaders have full confidence in the effectiveness of their deterrence capability, the perception generated by official rhetoric that Iran's nukes pose an existential threat to Israel could undermine the morale of the Israeli public if they wake up one morning with Iran having weapons capabilities. (Polls have shown that a good number of Israelis would consider leaving the country if this occurs.) Similarly, such a perception would undermine Israeli deterrence in the Arab world. At some point policy becomes partly hostage to rhetoric. As for the American position, the grave postulation of the Iranian threat entails, by definition, being prepared to go to war to address it.

In a dynamic environment where trust is lacking and assessment that Iranian capabilities are growing, the politics of the issue alone, particularly in an election year, entail that diplomacy will not be given much time, especially if there is a sense that it is failing. When one adds that Iran has politics of its own, and that Israeli and American politics are closely linked, political tails can wag strategic dogs toward war. For this reason, my assessment of the prospects of war is higher than it would otherwise be based strictly on strategic military calculations.

So how much does the American president matter? Not as much as you might think. The panelists estimated that if Obama wins reelection in November, the odds of war drop only slightly from 36 percent to 34 percent, and if Romney won, the odds tick upward only marginally to 37 percent.

Whoever is in charge, it seems, political tails can wag strategic dogs.

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, TIME.com, and on NPR.
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