The question of whether a war will break out over Iran’s nuclear programme has been around for so long that it is easy to become almost blasé. In 2006 Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was already asserting dramatically: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.”
This year, however, feels different. The threat of war is much more real. A conflict would begin with an Israeli bombing raid on Iran. But it would be likely swiftly to draw in the US – probably the UK and France, as well, and possibly the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.
Israeli fears are driving the process. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, has talked of Iran entering a “zone of immunity” – in which its nuclear programme becomes unstoppable – in the coming months. The Israelis are particularly concerned about plans to put Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities into hardened underground bunkers. Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, is said to believe there is a strong possibility of an Israeli attack in April, May or June.
But Israel is not the only factor. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are also obsessed with the need to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons. Barack Obama is still very keen to avoid conflict. But in a presidential election year, it is harder for him to rein in Israel. Britain and France – the two most important European military powers – are also seriously contemplating the prospect of conflict with Iran. Indeed, in marked contrast to the run-up to the Iraq war, the British and the French seem to be more bellicose than the Americans.
One European decision-maker recently laid out the possible cycle of escalation and counter-escalation. Israel would mount a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The US would not condemn the raid, while Europeans would speak out against the attack – but only halfheartedly. When Iran retaliated against Israel, the Europeans and Americans would come to Israel’s aid, with defensive measures: perhaps, initially, in the form of naval protection.
But it is also thought likely that Iranian retaliation would be aimed not just at Israel but also at western interests – and perhaps even at the Gulf states. That would lead to a much wider conflict. US air power would be used to knock out Iranian retaliatory capacity. Any Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz would be swiftly challenged by the US navy, with some token European support. While the Gulf states could never support an Israeli attack on Iran, they might get involved in this second round of military action – if Iran were foolish enough to attack them first. All the discussion, however, is of the use of air and naval power. There is no appetite for sending ground troops.
Among some European decision-makers these steps are discussed with a calm – and even a hint of relish – that is slightly startling. So why the change in mood?
There are several factors. First, while Mr Netanyahu is not liked or trusted by his counterparts in Washington, Paris and London, Israeli and Saudi concerns about the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme are, to a significant extent, shared by their US and European counterparts.
Read the remainder of this excellent Financial Times article here.