Odds of War With Iran Increase to 40%

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Our expert panel gauges the odds that the United States or Israel will strike the Islamic Republic in the next year.

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The probability of conflict with Iran is now at 40 percent, according to The Atlantic's Iran War Dial.

We've assembled a high profile team of experts from the policy world, academia, and journalism to periodically predict the chances that Israel or the United States will strike Iran in the next year. For more on the Iran War Dial and the panelists, visit our FAQ page.

Peace remains more likely than war. But the chances of conflict have ticked upward for the second month in a row, from 36 percent in June, to 38 percent in July, and now 40 percent in August.

This month, three of the panelists offered comments explaining why there was a serious risk of war.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, sees the rhetorical battle between Israel and Iran, and Israel's desire to protect its reputation, as potentially powerful forces for war.

In my opinion, the chance of an Israeli attack has slightly increased since the last estimate. It is still uncertain whether or not the Israeli posture is a mere bluff or a function of a real desire to attack Iran under the right circumstances. But in a world where perception of power is sometimes almost as important as power itself, the rhetorical escalation between Iran and Israel, and the seeming rise in Iran's influence in hosting the Non-Aligned Movement summit and gaining the important participation of Egypt's new president, have created a new challenge for Israel. Israel's deterrence posture is very a much a function of how strong Arabs and Muslims believe it is in comparison to its enemies.

For now, there are many who have come to believe a view expressed by one of the readers of Aljazeera.net: "For the second week in a row, Israelis are demonstrating in Tel Aviv in front of the minister of war, Ehud Barak, opposing his statements regarding the waging of war on Iran, as they are very scared of the consequences of an Iranian [counter-]attack. They chanted that Barak and Netanyahu would hide in fortified hideouts while the Israeli people will be totally destroyed by an Iranian attack....Shimon Peres and others oppose an Israeli strike against Iran because of the fear of the consequences of the Iranian counter-attack which will render Israel's very existence in the future unknown."

So add to all the other calculations that Israelis have to make, this one: If they don't attack, people in the region will see their refrain to be a direct function of Iran's growing power and Israel's weakness--something that Israelis have always seen as undermining their deterrence. This is why I had expressed the view that rhetoric matters more than politicians sometimes know. The outcome in this case may be disastrous.

Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, also believes that Israel's concerns over protecting its credibility may heighten the odds of war.
 

The main variable in weighing the likelihood of a military attack against Iran in the coming year is the cost-benefit assessment of such an option in Israel. Unfortunately, Israelis who believe the advantages of attacking Iran outweigh the dangers may have the upper hand at the moment, making the odds of an attack higher now than in previous months.
 
Yes, the majority of Israel's military and security establishment oppose an attack (preferring the United States take the lead instead) and the Israeli public is divided and wary of a strike without U.S. support. There is also broad understanding among Israel's security elites that a military strike can only slow but not stop Iran's program and may only give Iran more incentive to reconstitute its program, much as Saddam Hussein did after Israel attacked Iraq's nuclear reactor. For this reason, many speculate that the recent spike in Israeli war talk is more bluff designed mainly to elicit even tougher international and American actions against Iran. But it would be a mistake not to take Israeli threats seriously this time.
 
The leaders most associated with favoring a military option and the ones who could ultimately make the decision--Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak--have staked their domestic and international reputations on these threats. They are not just talking about war but they are asking the Israeli population to prepare for it. And Israel is telling the United States and the international community that diplomacy and sanctions have run their course.
 
Despite the unprecedented levels of U.S. assistance and military cooperation with Israel in recent years, Netanyahu's government does not appear convinced that the United States will deal with Iran down the road (i.e., launch a military attack) if Israel holds off now, when it believes it has the best operational ability to set back Iran's program before the so-called 'zone of immunity' kicks in.  Israeli leaders may also believe they will be more immune from American censure if they act during a presidential election.
 
As a consequence, Israel may be conditioning its own society and the world for military action. Israeli leaders must understand how their threats at a certain point lose their credibility, both among their own population and abroad, if they never act on them. The effectiveness of such threats in ramping up international pressure against Iran in order to stave off an Israeli attack also begins to diminish at a certain point, and we may be reaching that point.
 
Some prominent Israeli analysts have recently suggested an exit strategy from Israel's escalation of military threats--get the United States to more forcefully and explicitly commit to military action if Israel holds off attacking Iran now. But boxing the United States into commitments to take military action against Iran would be a dangerous way to avoid an Israeli attack. The risks and drawbacks of military action that have led many Israelis to oppose this option are just as pertinent to a U.S. strike. Let's hope we can find other ways to convince the Israelis that a military strike against Iran is a bad idea. But assuming the Israelis aren't serious is not an option.

Ken Timmerman, executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, sees a "dramatic uptick" in the odds of war in recent weeks.

It is warranted by a volume of recent statements from top Israeli leaders warning about an impending decision on whether to strike Iran. Israel has made clear that it views Oct. 1 as a "threshold" for Iran's nuclear weapons capability, since that is when the IAEA estimates Iran will have enriched enough 20% uranium to make at least one 1st generation nuclear explosive device after further enrichment. Since the IAEA has also concluded that Iran has tested all the non-nuclear components for an implosion device, this clearly is a key capability. By most estimates, Iran will be able to carry out further enriching to weapons grade in somewhere between 6 to 8 weeks.

Israel has two parallel fears. The first is that the spinning centrifuges will produce an imminent Iranian nuclear capability. The second is that the failure to strike Iran--after all of Israel's tough language--will destroy Israel's credibility so that its promises and threats will no longer be believed. Would a country really fight a war to protect its reputation? The single biggest reason why the United States fought the Vietnam War for eight years, with 58,000 American deaths, was the hope of avoiding a humiliating defeat and defending American credibility.

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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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