Military posturing on Iran risks unintended consequences

'Bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran ...," Senator John McCain sang, to the tune of the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann during his 2008 presidential run. And as a new US election season gets underway with Iran even closer to the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, Mr McCain's ditty is enjoying a revival, nowhere more so than in Israel.

Last week, in anticipation of the latest IAEA report on Iran, Israel's bomb-Iran chatter reached a peak: stories leaked to the media claimed Israel's leaders were locked in furious debate over whether to launch air strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak leading the charge to war. Former Mossad chiefs Ephraim Halevy and Meir Dagan publicly denied the hysteria and war talk, but even that reinforced a sense that something was afoot.

The Israelis also staged high-profile media spectacles to suggest preparations for war - testing a Jericho II missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload to Iran; mounting a flying mission to Italy to show the Israeli Air Force's operational range; and staging a civil defence exercise simulating missile attacks on Israeli cities. The last produced the subversive image of Israeli "victims" lying happily on the grass texting on their smart phones, indifferent to the "chemical weapons" spewing from a missile just yards away - a metaphor, perhaps, for the blasé response of some Israelis to the war talk.

Israel rattling its sabre is a well-established tactic to panic countries into adopting tougher measures against Iran. President Barack Obama's Iran point-man, Dennis Ross, had even explicitly advocated, in a book published in 2009, making use of Israeli tough talk in a diplomatic game of good cop-bad cop to scare European countries to adopt new sanctions lest Israel do something rash.

Having failed to stop Iran's nuclear progress, Mr Obama also is vulnerable to such pressure as he seeks re-election in a political climate where tangling with Israel is considered a mistake. Indeed, Israel claimed that Mr Netanyahu had not given Defence Secretary Leon Panetta the assurance he recently sought that Israel would refrain from attacking Iran without first coordinating with Washington.

The latest IAEA report is expected to go further than any previous assessment by the UN nuclear watchdog in suggesting that Tehran may be pursuing the technological capability to produce nuclear weapons, citing apparent theoretical work on warhead designs, and possible experimentation with high-explosive trigger systems for atom bombs, possibly with the assistance of a Russian scientist.

The IAEA does not maintain that Iran is building nuclear weapons, but gives the UN agency's imprimatur to the suspicion that Iran is assembling the capability to produce nuclear weapons if it should choose to do so - the "break-out" capacity that would allow Tehran to create such weapons within months of withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While Washington hopes that the report will change the game, obliging Russia, China, Turkey and others to back a significant escalation of sanctions, that remains unlikely. Nothing in the new document was unknown to those countries, and it's unlikely to alter their belief that western policy on Iran is more likely to produce a tragic confrontation than a positive result. But Moscow's efforts to produce a political solution by tying Iranian cooperation to an easing of sanctions are unlikely to be given the time of day amid the more confrontational climate in Israel and Washington.

The new IAEA report is unlikely to break the stalemate. Existing sanctions haven't changed Iran's calculus, and the harsher measures delivering real economic pain that Israel would like to see are unlikely to be adopted. Continuing turmoil within Iran's political system further imperils any prospect of rapprochement.

While the sense of urgency created by the sabre rattling is artificial, the rhetoric of Israel's leaders could paint them into a corner: having told their own people that they are under mortal threat from a new Hitler and prepared them for military action in response, it may be difficult to keep delaying D-Day. Thus the concern of the likes of Mr Dagan and Mr Halevy to tamp down the hysteria by insisting that Iran's nuclear programme is not an existential threat to Israel. Even Mr Barak, said to be an advocate of bombing, says publicly he doesn't believe Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon against Israel, even if having one tipped the regional balance in its favour.

Mr Obama is feeling pressure from Israel and from his Republican challengers to keep "all options on the table", despite being well aware that military strikes would probably trigger a regional war that could jeopardise US interests across the Middle East, and result in oil-supply disruptions that could choke off any prospect of near-term global economic recovery.

Consequences aside, the US military knows that there isn't really a "military option" to stop Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, short of invading and occupying the country - a prospect so daunting (Iran is three times the size of Iraq) that nobody is even suggesting it. Last December, the then-defence secretary Robert Gates pointed out (as has Mr Dagan) that a successful air campaign targeting all of Iran's known nuclear facilities would — at best - set back progress towards nuclear weapons capability by two to three years. But, Mr Gates warned, it would prompt Iran to kick out inspectors and take its programme deep underground, all but ensuring that the Iranian leadership built nuclear weapons.

That's not a gamble any sober leader is likely to take. Sobriety requires a new, and more difficult, conversation with and about Iran. Instead, we're more likely to see a dangerous game of brinkmanship, raising the risk of miscalculation on both sides as each side's posturing narrows its own room for manoeuvre.

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron

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