With the mounting covert war between Israel, the United States and Iran, tensions are on the rise. It is worthwhile to examine how an attack on Iran would unfold. While a conflict between the two isn’t inevitable yet, this post assumes a war will happen and will look particularly at what role the United States is likely to play.
If there is an attack, it is probably going to be a unilateral one by Israel. There is a closing window in which Israel can strike. Israeli officials have described Iran as being on the verge of entering a “zone of immunity”, after which the Iranian nuclear program will be hard to destroy. Iran is currently building an underground installation at Qom. Once it’s completed Israel won’t be able to attack it without American help. Israeli leaders are very conscious of this fact, hence the heightened chatter in recent months about launching an attack. Israel believes that their air force can probably destroy the current installations, but once construction at Qom is completed, they would need American help. Israel isn’t willing to bet its future survival, which in their view is threatened by Iran, on the possibility of American support. Israel appears to know that they won’t get American support for launching an attack and won’t tell Washington beforehand. They have stopped sharing intelligence about their military preparations for a possible strike, which is probably fine by the United States. That way they will have plausible deniability about foreknowledge of Israeli plans.
The United States will not involve itself in the outset of a conflict between Iran and Israel. President Obama himself seems to expect Israel to strike soon, reportedly telling Chinese officials that America can’t hold back Israel indefinitely. Additionally, the presidential election is an important factor that must be considered. Obama has high approval ratings for his handling of international affairs. It is unlikely that he would jeopardize one of his strongest cards against the Republicans in order to fight a war that he doesn’t view as essential to America’s national interest. It would also be devastating on the economic front, as a war with Iran would unsettle the financial markets and raise the price of oil, which would only halter the precarious global economic recovery. An attack would also impact the Arab Spring, possibly turning it anti-American. The regime in Syria would be strengthened, and Islamist political parties throughout nascent democracies would increase their anti-American rhetoric. There is also the strong possibility of counter attacks on Americans stationed in the region. The failed attacks in India, Thailand and Georgia in the last week have shown that Iran, through proxies like Hezbollah, has a global reach (albeit not a particularly competent one). The risk to the lives of American troops will surely have an important weight on the Commander-in-Chief’s decision making.
As a recent Newsweek article pointed out, it is likely that the United States would have to complete any action against Iran that Israel started. Israel doesn’t have the capacity to to wage a long drawn-out bombing campaign. An attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities would take hundreds of sorties over several weeks. Eventually Israel would require the support of the United States. This would include providing Israel with refueling planes, help with combating Iranian air defense and replenishing Israel’s bomb supply. This is the only scenario in which the United States is likely to involve themselves, knowing that a half finished strike on Iran would be the worst possible outcome. There would be fear that Tehran would then quickly develop a bomb, and having already been attacked, would be more likely to use it. In such a scenario the United States would surely involve itself and join in the campaign.