Sometime in the next few months, Israel may very well go to war against Iran, and it could draw the United States into the conflict. The global strategy firm Wikistrat, at which I am a senior analyst, recently laid out 10 scenarios for such a war breaking out, each plausible in its own way. Thomas P.M. Barnett wrote in a recent WPR column that he believes that war is inevitable, and even war opponents such as Peter Beinart and Bernard Finel believe that the “Iran hawks” have taken control of the debate.
The case for attacking Iran relies overwhelmingly on the concept of uncertainty. We don’t know if the Iranians want to build a bomb, or whether they can build a bomb, or when they might be able to build a bomb. Even if they build one, the consequences will remain unpredictable, because we don’t know what they would do with a bomb, or how their neighbors would react to an Iranian bomb. The deterrent effect of an Iranian nuclear weapon might prevent us from seeking regime change or some other aggressive military option, thus creating even more uncertainty. Containment might be possible, but the costs could be high and much would remain out of U.S. control.
It’s understandable how so much uncertainty can trigger anxiety. What is less clear is how we arrived at the notion that airstrikes against the Iranian nuclear program can eliminate this uncertainty. Prospects for success of an Israeli strike remain iffy, and U.S. estimates suggest that an attack would only briefly delay Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, it's difficult to say what precisely would count as "success" or how the Israelis would measure the effectiveness of their attack. Tehran would certainly declare victory as soon as the last Israeli aircraft left its airspace, and the Iranians would control public assessment of the damage to their nuclear facilities.