Risk of Iran War Escalates

Western powers test out harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Israel pins the blame for a bus bombing in Bulgaria on Iranian agents, presumably retaliating for Israeli assassinations of Iran’s scientists. As tensions ratchet up – Syria’s unraveling, too – the chances for a disastrous war escalate, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.


By Paul R. Pillar

The closest things we have to consensus views on the likelihood of war breaking out with Iran rate such a war as unlikely in the near term, in the sense of a less-than-even chance. The most recent (i.e., last month) iteration of a poll of 22 experts done for The Atlantic (I am one of the “experts”) yielded an average probability for either the United States or Israel attacking Iran in the next year of 36 percent.

Turning to those who put their money where their prognostications are, participants in the online prediction market Intradecurrently rate the chance of a U.S. or Israeli airstrike against Iran sometime before the end of 2012 as about 33 percent. The most likely outcome of a situation, however, is not the only outcome we should worry about, and we should especially worry about outcomes that, although less likely, would be especially damaging to our interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commenting on bombing of a bus in Bulgaria carrying Israeli tourists. (Photo credit: Office of the Prime Minister of Israel)

A former Vice President of the United States once said that even if there were only a 1 percent chance of a really bad thing happening, we need to work to prevent it from happening. He was wrong in his dismissive approach toward probabilities. But the 33–36 percent range represents far more likelihood than 1 percent, and war with Iran would be a really bad thing for the United States.

The current danger of a war derives from a mix of factors that could slide Iran and the United States toward combat even if senior decision-makers in neither Washington nor Tehran want a war. (These factors no doubt underlie a significant increase this month in the likelihood of war as measured by the Intrade market, which in late June had dropped below 20 percent.)

One factor is the combination of Western economic warfare against Iran in the name of getting Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program, combined with the failure of the West, despite its stated objective, to use its economic sanctions as leverage to accomplish that very goal. The result is an impression of stalemate leading promoters of a war to pronounce that “diplomacy has failed.”

Another factor is the chance of an accidental altercation involving U.S. and Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. That chance increases as the United States beefs up its naval forces in the Gulf with an additional aircraft carrier and conducts additional exercises there.

U.S. naval officers have reported that insofar as they have communications with Iranian counterparts at sea, the latter appear to behave professionally and do not seem to be looking for a confrontation. But the more military activity there is in the area, the greater is the risk of an incident that stems from nervousness or faulty communication (or even intentional action by a hot-headed low-level Revolutionary Guard commander) and then spins out of control.

A reminder of how faulty communication and nervousness on the U.S. side can produce an incident was the firing by the U.S. Navy at an Indian fishing boat earlier this week off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. This incident also recalls the one in 1988 in which the crew of another U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf, also mistakenly imputing hostile intentions, shot down a civilian Iranian airliner. That tragedy killed 290 persons and led Iranians to conclude that it was an intentional act by the United States.

The casualties in this week’s incident were limited to one Indian fisherman killed and three wounded, but if an Iranian vessel had been involved the chance of escalation would have been significant.

Then there are developments involving the prime mover of heightened tension with Iran: Israel, which wants to preserve its regional nuclear-weapons monopoly and in the meantime has been stoking the Iranian nuclear issue to crisis-level heat and promoting it as the “real problem” of the region.

Political events within Israel are tending to keep the Netanyahu government on its bellicose path. A short-lived coalition with the centrist Kadima party broke up amid disagreement over extending conscription to the ultra-Orthodox, and the government has returned to being a more purely right-wing enterprise.

The break-up with Kadima may make an Israeli election come sooner than it otherwise would have, but there is no alternative in sight anyway with a decent chance to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In this environment comes the bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials swiftly pinned blame on Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah ally, although actual responsibility for the attack is still murky.

The Bulgarians identified as the bomber a Swedish-Algerian who was incarcerated at Guantanamo before being freed in 2004 and has also reportedly spent time in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Swedish officials have denied he is the bomber.

Notwithstanding continued uncertainty about responsibility for the bombing in Bulgaria, we ought to pay attention to Netanyahu’s blurt that “This is a global Iranian terror onslaught and Israel will react firmly to it,” for two reasons.

One is that Iran may indeed be behind the attack, and it would be unsurprising if it is. Israel has been waging a covert war against Iran that has included, among other actions, multiple assassinations of Iranian scientists. The Israeli attacks have entailed terrorism in the purist sense of the word, in that they have been designed not just to hurt directly the Iranian nuclear effort but to intimidate other scientists from working for the program.

Iran evidently has tried to respond with attacks in foreign countries against Israeli diplomats with methods that, to make the tit-for-tat nature of the terrorism explicit, mimicked the methods the Israelis used. The very limited nature of the Iranians’ success makes it plausible that they may have decided to go for an Israeli target that was even softer and less protected than a diplomat.

The other reason to pay attention to Netanyahu’s bellicose response is that he may be looking for excuses to up the ante and the heat no matter who ultimately turns out to be responsible for the attack in Bulgaria.

The current uncertainty about responsibility may even be a motivation to act sooner rather than later, before the investigation of the bombing might start to point in a direction other than Iran. His action may take the form of an escalation of Israel’s terrorism campaign, which would further increase the danger of a covert war becoming an expanding overt one.

Although the chance of war with Iran gets attention among policy cognoscenti in Washington, the danger is underappreciated among the American public. The presidential election campaign isn’t helping and instead is making things worse.

President Barack Obama apparently has opted to try to keep a lid on the Iranian nuclear issue through Election Day rather than resolving it. Mitt Romney, in trying to score points against the President, only tells us that we ought to be more afraid of an Iranian nuclear weapon than a new war in the Middle East.

This raises the question of how such fear, of a still nonexistent weapon in the hands of a second-rate power on the other side of the globe, is consistent with the vision of a proud and powerful America that one hears in the rest of his message.

The danger of a war needs to be taken seriously. That means using those sanctions we have piled on Iran as leverage, which is not how we have used them so far, to make possible a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

It means emphasizing communications and procedures in the Persian Gulf that will minimize the chance of an escalation-prone incident, rather than merely bringing in more sabers and rattling them more loudly.

And it means distancing and dissociating the United States as much as possible from destructive and destabilizing actions by Israel.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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31 comments on “Risk of Iran War Escalates

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Maybe I’ve got my facts wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I thought I read that we’re sending another aircraft carrier over there, and that brings it up to what…four? Iran is now surrounded by U.S. And NATO bases. And, Iran’s only real “ace in the hole” (except, of course, her influence over Iraq, fostered by the good will we engendered with our occupation) is her ability to control the Strait of Hormuz. Her nuclear program is legal, but Israel’s is clearly a threat-option. They both have submarines, but antisubmarine warfare technology is probably embryonic on Iran’s side. Israel no doubt has at least tried to gather our secrets, unless we outright gave them away. In addition to all the other hardware, we are apparently sending mine-sweepers. This effectively negates any strategic advantage Iran might have from a geographic standpoint. So, what we have is the implementation of “Full Spectrum Dominance” along the lines of the Powell Doctrine: overwhelming force. They’ve been surrounded, and sanctions are, like it or not, an act of war. Sanctions on Japan are what lead to Pearl Harbor. Japan faced the prospect of economic collapse without oil. Iran would have to be brain-dead not to perceive an existential threat. In a busy sea-lane, a sleeping submarine can burp out things that nobody notices. I’d be watching for a USS Liberty incident. As far as the “terrorist attacks” are concerned, I’m sure Iran will get the blame. But look at past resolutions in the United Nations. The only countries that side with Israel are The United States and Micronesia. When are they going to realize that Iran isn’t the only country in the world they’ve pissed off? In this environment, 36% is a “Lady’s Wager”, and now is as good a time as any. I’d bet on black.

    • Dr. Paul in NJ on said:

      Assad is toast, and he knows it. All non-NATO powers know that NATO is supporting the rebels. Iran and its allies need to maintain control of Syria for survival. Thus we are ALREADY in a proxy-type war with Iran, especially when Syria falls. Since Russia and China have members in Bilderbeg, the goal from Election night 2000 all the way until now was to maintain Western ways of living via overthrowing Iraq, Syria and Iran. It is a necessary undertaking, even though it included 9-11, 2004 election, 2008 election, etc. The radicals on both sides in the US will revolt, which is also necessary. The Divide and Conquer game will take down the leftist cult in academia and show biz, as well as the gun-loving, seed-buying reactionaries on the opposite side. (Thus Alex Jones meets Edward Asner.) Obama’s NDAA will curtail their insurrections. Occupy Waal Street was simply the misguided preachings of today’s “justice” academics taken to the streets. The youngins they taught figured that their postmodern, global, innovative, interactive, active learning(with reflection), Writing Across the Curriculum, whole learning nonsense would work in the streets; it didn’t. It was seen as ridiculous. The utopians from the 60s will not have their revolution. Nuff said except one thing: just who is Barak Obama? Is he CIA or a pawn of the CIA?

      • Syria has strategically important to Hamas and Lebanon – but not to Iran. Syria is too weak economic and military-wise to help Iran if attacked by USrael. It’s Iran which is providing financial and military aid to Syria. The USrael’s desire for a regime change in Damascus is aimed at stopping the country to support Hamas and Hizbullah.

        Culturally, Syria, with an Arab Sunni-majority and ruled by an atheist Ba’athist party, has nothing in common with non-Arab Shia majority and ruled by Islamic theocrats.

        What’s going on in Syria has nothing to do anti-regime protests, it’s all to do with an armed foreign insurgency, supported by the US, France, Britain, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

        http://rehmat1.com/2012/07/02/kofi-annan-no-regime-change-in-syria/

    • berie on said:

      History will repeat itself. If Netanyahu does not get what he wants he will create a September 1st, 1939. What chance will a US President have than to shoot back in order to protect the troops. Read the history books. I only hope that I am wrong.

  2. rlaing on said:

    or even intentional action by a hot-headed low-level Revolutionary Guard commander

    Because those Iranians are so unstable…to illustrate his point, the author points to not one, but two incidents in which careless and or over-aggressive American commanders commit murder on the high seas.

    Funny how that works.

    • I have never heard so much crap about America, example: when the commander of a warship shot the Iranian Passenger jet down, it happened and was wrong, but how many people have Iran killed through terrorism, regulars and children, that is murder. If you don’t like it here, then get the hell out of the US and live over there and see the loss of you rights.

      • F. G. Sanford on said:

        Mike, below you say, “Israel will never be obliterated because they are protected by the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. I am glad our country supports them, anyone who protects their country will be protected by God.” Mike, why don’t YOU move to Israel? You obviously have a problem with freedom of speech, rational discourse, and the right to patriotic dissent. You would be much happier in that bastion of Abrahamic Law and shining example of Middle Eastern democracy: Israel. Maybe a nice, seaside community like Gaza would be good for your health, and your hemorrhoids would improve. The syntactical errors in your comments suggest to me that English is your second language. I suspect YOU ARE ALREADY IN ISRAEL! You are certainly not a patriotic American. Mazeltov! (Hey, I’m American. I don’t know how to spell it!)

  3. “United States’ economy is too weak for war against Iran,” Donald Beyer, US ambassador to Switzerland.

    On Wednesday, a bomb exploded in the bus carrying Israeli tourists at the Sarafovo airport terminal of the Bulgarian city of Burgas. Bulgarian television has reported that seven Jewish tourists were killed and 30 more injured. As expected, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu blamed the Islamic Republic for the blast. Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman immediately called his Bulgarian counterpart, Nikolay Mladenov, on phone to tell him who should be blamed for the bombing. Israel has already despatched a rescue team to remove evidence as they did at the Israeli-owned Hotel Paradise Mombassa in Kenya on November 22, 2002, Madrid train bombing on March 11, 2004 and London train bombing on July 7, 2005.

    Incidently, Wednesday also marked the anniversary of the July 18, 1994 Mossad false flag operation – the bombing of Jewish Center (AMIA) in Buenos Aires which killed 85 people and injured hundreds others. Israel has long been trying to pin the blame on Hizbullah and Tehran. On July 17, 2012 – Abraham Foxman, head of Israel lobby group ADL in a statement urged Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to investigate Iran’s involvement in the bombing and “work to counter Iranian influence in Latin America“. MP Kirchner visited Israel in 2005 where she was lauded being a “great friend” of Argentinean Jewish community (largest in South America).

    Before some Zionist idiot blame me being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – let me repeat what Nikolay Mladenov said in his speech at the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Global Forum in 2011.

    “1. We shall never accept the policies of Iran to develop nuclear weapons, to challenge the right of a member state of the United Nations to exist.

    2. We will stand up to those who aim to subvert the Durban process by single out the state of Israel.

    3. We will say “no” to all who aim to de-legitimize Israel. To refuse the right of Israel to exist means to refuse the right of the Palestinian people to also have a state of their own.“

    Sofia has blamed Mehdi Ghezali – Ex-Gitmo detainee, Fake American Passport and Driver’s License, but Real Swedish One (son of an Algerian father and Swedish mother).

    A perfect Mossad/CIA pasty, don’t you think so?

    http://rehmat1.com/2012/07/19/mossad-blasts-7-israeli-tourists-in-bulgaria/

  4. incontinent reader on said:

    One wonders if Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Israel were more at risk of being decimated whether they would be so aggressive. It is a card the Russians seem unwilling to play and the U.S. has been bold enough to discount. Too bad there is no deterrent now that we are seeing Syria being taken apart, and are so close to a war with Iran that shouldn’t even be contemplated. In the end the U.S. will transfer more wealth from its underclass to pay for all of this while the Israeli economy will continue to sail along and Israel will continue to bully and extract from the Palestinians and its neighbors. The Israelis may think they can manipulate U.S. foreign policy forever, and the U.S. may think that forming partnerships and coalitions will protect it and its repeated attempts at gang rape, but in the end we’ll all pay.

  5. Hillary on said:

    The US exists to service Israel and U.S.multinationals.

    The G.W.Bush/Obama neocon Administrations have spent US $4 Trillion SO FAR.

    This PNAC orchestrated “Arab spring” was for the purpose of civil war and destruction we are now seeing. — Iraq , Afghanistan , Lybia , Yemen and Syria with the only beneficiary being Israel.

    The more the Middle East tears itself apart, the more Israel can continue its occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine

    Meanwhile the the average American doesn’t realize they are running up a debt of over $42 K for every American citizen in this Project for the New
    American Century (PNAC).
    http://www.usdebtclock.org/.

    Sadly not many Americans are aware of this and most of those who are aware are silent and sadly by their silence become collaborators.
    http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/u-s-homeland-security-allocates-9-7-million-to-jewish-nonprofits-1.448122

  6. Syria is falling apart because the average citizen doesn’t want to be under a dictator. They have the right to be free, the ruler is nothing more than murder of his own people, and evidence has supported this. The Israelis have the right to be free, the President of Iran has said himself that they want to obliterate the country. I don’t want war, because nothing is won, the regular people are the ones to die. Israel will never be obliterated because they are protected by the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. I am glad our country supports them, anyone who protects their country will be protected by God.

    • ilse on said:

      “The Israelis have the right to be free, the President of Iran has said himself that they want to obliterate the country.”
      First of all: nothing like that has been stated. Learn how to inform yourself properly.
      Second: The Palestinians have a right to their land and not live under Israeli dictatorship.

      • Eliza on said:

        Go easy. I suspect that the gentleman doesn’t know how to inform himself. Chances are good that he just listens to some preacher(s)or pseudo preachers, who no doubt are being spoken to by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — AND Mohammed and Joseph Smith, as well. Interesting, isn’t it?

      • Iran has made the threat more then once he wants to obliterate Isreael. You need to do your homework it was in the news a few times the last few years everytime Iran said that..That is a fact..why do you think Isreal is so determined to not let Iran get nukes.

  7. ilse on said:

    Sounds like a diversion to Romney’s lies and tax evasion problems is being created.

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Yes, like that interview comment from a former Israeli foreign minister on the topic of antisemitism: “It’s an old trick; we always use it”. Look at the syntax in Mike’s comments: he’s an Israeli, not an American.

    • Lets have all of congress senate supreme court judges and obama open up their taxe returns..huh lets see what they have Trust me most of them have money offshore..I don`t blame them our tax code is a joke so they do that to protect their money. Where is obamas tax returns??? he is a pres so its only fair if someone running open theirs then everyone in office should also.

  8. Melanie on said:

    Why are the Iranians any more unstable than the rest of us?
    Sorry, I just dont get it.
    I dont like war, PERIOD. I do know however that people, being the aggressive bunch that they are, learn hate, and find war to be an answer. Thing is, it never is. It just delays the inevitable. If I were to tell you a dream I had, you would think me naive — but I dreamt I crossed a bridge, and ended up in Iran. I was terrified, afraid of getting killed and found a coffee shop; inside Americans and Iranians were hanging out, drinking coffee and doing arts and crafts. :) Wild dream, but a hopeful one at least.
    Repression and war breeds nothing more but repression and war. I pray we have an awakening and learn to forgive, let go, and join together in this time of horrible global hardships. We have more problems now than we did in the 30s – a war this time around will be worse than you can imagine.
    Just saying… not that I’m some American University Grad or war specialist; but putting in my 2 cents worth. Thanks.

    • Iranians are certainly NOT unstable than the rest of us. One just have to learn the truth from some objective source than the Zionist-controlled western mainstream media owned by six Jewish families.

      “The most important thing that I can convey about Iran in general – my most memorable reaction in retrospect – is this simple concept: Americans need to ignore anything and everything they hear about modern-day Iran, its leader, its culture, and its people from the mass media in America,” Michael Collins Piper, American author and correspondent for American Free Press, January 7, 2007.

      http://rehmat1.com/2011/03/13/islamic-republic-beyond-israeli-hasbara/

  9. je_proteste on said:

    To the actions to prevent war stated at the end of the piece, I would say it mean more than “distancing and dissociating the United States as much as possible from destructive and destabilizing actions by Israel.” It requires a phone call to Netanyahu to make very clear to him that one more move will mean cutting off all support for Israel. If Israel wants a war, let them fight it on their own. Perhaps some US neocon chicken hawks would go and help him. (Ha!)

  10. eddie on said:

    Israel what are you waiting for, chicken out? Your patient had been tried over and over again.
    Is this the same Israel in 1967!

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      More suspiciously incorrect grammar errors an American would never make.

  11. Kenny Fowler on said:

    As long as Obama wins the election the war’s not happening. Romney would re-install the neocons and then more war is very likely. But until the Syrian civil war is over nobody is starting another war. And from the looks of things, Syria is going to get much worse before it’s over. It’s pretty clear by now that Iran is not building any nukes and has no intention to do so in the future. The Syrian situation is real danger.

  12. borat on said:

    The usual iran loving antisemitic destroy Irael crap is countered by:

    Iran’s War on Israel

    The world’s leading sponsor of terror strikes again..

    The suicide bombing that killed five Israeli tourists and a local Bulgarian bus driver on Wednesday was shocking if all too familiar. The Jewish state has been in a virtual state of war since its birth in 1948, and in recent years the chief threat has emanated from Iran and its terror proxies.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Lebanese group Hezbollah—”the long arm of Iran”—carried out the attack in the Bulgarian coastal city of Burgas. American officials confirm that the bomber belonged to a Hezbollah cell.

    The Burgas strike took place on the anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people, and fits—in Mr. Netanyahu’s words—a “consistent pattern” of Iranian-sponsored attacks on Israeli civilians around the world. Particularly of late.

    A Hezbollah man was arrested in Cyprus last week, suspected of plotting to attack Israeli tourists at a beach resort. Kenyan officials last month arrested two Iranians who were shipping high explosives into the country and allegedly scoping out U.S. and Israeli targets. In February, Israeli officials were targeted in bombing attacks in India, Georgia and Thailand. As a reminder that Iran also targets non-Israelis, last October the Obama Administration said it foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.

    The atrocity in Bulgaria is another reminder about the nature of the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic was born through terror, starting with the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and it has become the world’s leading terror sponsor. A clerical regime hated by its own people and isolated in the world has grown even more brazen and unpredictable.

    No wonder Israel is so worried about Iran’s plans to build nuclear weapons and is determined to stop Tehran with a direct military strike if need be. As Mr. Netanyahu said, “A terrorist state must not have a nuclear weapon,” especially when that state pledges to wipe you off the map.

    The wonder is that the U.S. and its allies continue to look for ways to reach a diplomatic understanding with the perpetrators of these unending attacks, rather than calling the regime what it is and working to overthrow it. Iran’s killing of innocents will continue until the world decides to stop it.

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      You are right, Borat. A terrorist state should not be permitted to have a nuclear arsenal, especially when it pledges to wipe a peaceful state off the map. Israel’s killing of Palestinians will continue until the world decides to stop it.

      • borat on said:

        The Palestinians were left purposely by the Arab states after being defeated by the new state of Israel in ’48, as a political pawn. They could have easily absorbed them. Contrast that w/Israel absorbing all of the Jews from Arab countries that were expelled. As long as the Arabs extol the destruction and elimination of Israel along w/Iran’s proxies in terror, Israel has no choice but to defend itself period. You conveniently forget the homicide bombers and human shields mainly women and childen that the Palestinian “Authority” has used.

        • Hillary on said:

          The Jewish “invasion” of Palestine after WWII brought theft, robbery, torture, murder and genocide to the Middle East while OUR MSM continued to promote the Jews as as eternal victims.

          Today the “Chosen People” in Palestine, and their Sayanim counterparts in the USA ,UK and elsewhere , are exercising a concerted effort to control the spin on the news and define what is politically correct or allowed to be said on the Internet “chat rooms” etc where droves of their trolls have taken up permanent residence.

          Make no mistake about it, these rabid Zionist zealots have an agenda to bring “Juden uber Alles” into fruition.

          • borat on said:

            Herr Hillary,
            Such twisted logic; the remnants of European Jewry had to fight off the Arab states sworn to destroy the new state of Israel. There were many pogroms against Jews when the British held the Palestine mandate.

  13. Mad Adam on said:

    Syria’s a short cut to Iran. No Iran, then no Hizbollah. No Hizbollah, then no resistance to another Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon, No resistance, then the Litani river becomes the new border. With a new border comes a cooperative Lebanese government, then the U.S. gets unlimited access to the strategic ports of Sidon, perhaps Beruit, Tyre and eventually Latakia … Study your geography, it’s much more economical to invade Iran from a Mediterranean port then to supply an army through the Persian Gulf. It cuts the exposure of your naval forces to any Iranian counter attack as well. Somewhere, John Rockefeller must be smiling.

    • Aaron on said:

      All about Geography, you said it !

      Iran, the gateway between the Persian gulf and the Caspian sea on the one hand – and THE ultimate bridge between South East Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Arab world.

      US/NATO Vs. China/Russia on all the major issues regarding the Mid East and broader region.

      The Great Game continues to this day, most obviously at the UN Security Council, and I thought the Cold War was over. Go figure.

  14. ahmad on said:

    Hello
    Americans think they are ruling the world
    And this idea is so shameless
    And they think better of other people around the world
    And this idea is so shameless
    And they think that the world should be saved
    But their world is more frightening than all the people are more dangerous and more deadly.