The US Hawks are Smelling Blood: Are the warpigs getting ready to bomb the Shiite out of Iran?
I think most 'informed' people out there would say that a US led attack on Iran is not very likely any time in the near future. The majority seems to believe that America's neoconservative policy makers wouldn't be reckless or dumb enough to open up a new front when military resources are already stretched thin. Arguably even more important, no prudent decision maker would decide to jump into another open conflict in the region when the world's oil supplies are so limited, with world demand due to 'Chindia's' growth increasing everyday, and the essential Middle Eastern supply of oil potentially so easily cut off by war. It sounds perfectly reasonable, but let's not forget the mindset of the leaders who are making the decisions. Never underestimate the irrationality of a committed ideologue.
Ahmadinejad isn't going to back down and compromise on his country's nuclear program; and he probably wouldn't mind a limited conflict to bolster domestic support anyway. He and the theocracy supporting him will end up gaining a great deal of legitimacy if the US, or its regional proxy Israel, decides to attack Iran. I honestly don't think the Bush administration really understands this- once again they're listening too much to an unrepresentative and self-interested 'Iranian' minority telling them the country is ripe for change. More importantly, Bush and his neocon buddies might not even care all that much for changing Iranian regime. Of course, the primary objective of any attack would be to weaken the regional influence of Iran rather than 'liberate' its people. There are actually advantages of having a weakened and isolated radical theocracy still in power in Iran from a cynical 'divide and conquer' perspective. It helps to keep the Sunni Arab majority frightened and distracts them from US domination of the region. In fact, it actually gives America another reason for being there: to prevent the region from descending into sectarian violence. Just look at what a good job the US is doing of it in Iraq ;-)
And how exactly do the people dismissing the possibility of an attack on Iran expect the present 'stand-off' to be resolved? I personally don't see much way out of some sort of military confrontation between the world's hegemon and the intransigent Shia state. It's probably more than a little foolhardy to speculate in the detail on the political future of region as complex as the Middle East. Regardless, I'll stick my neck out and make some predictions. My guess is that Shrub holds off on any strike until after the november midterm elections, perhaps sometime in the winter-spring 2007? I don't think he would want to wait too long for the strike since he only has until the end of 2008 to shape policy in the wake of an attack. The US and/or Israel will conduct a limited airstrike to take out some of Iran's nuke capacity and attempt to 'humble' the leadership. A full scale ground invasion is definitely not a possibility, but airstrikes and covert ops are certainly within the US's and/or Israel's capacity at present. Iranian reprisals would probably be largely symbolic and actual counter-attacks would almost entirely be small scale and primarily conducted by proxy through sympathetic Shia militias in Iraq or Lebanon. They could send more Shia irregulars and weapons into Iraq, but their ability to attack US troops would be limited to pretty much what's going on at present (IED attack, small ambushes, snipers). On top of that the Shia would still be preoccupied with fighting the Sunni and protecting their own people. In the finaly analysis, the primary reason I suspect there will be a limited attack on Iran is the thinking prevalent among political elites in the US, Israel and Iran. In my opinion, they've clearly demonstrated that they are fully prepared for war, and even more troubling is that they all appear to believe they can benefit from it.
The recent clash between Hezbollah and Israel can be viewed as one of the prepatory phases in a war between the US-Israel and Iran. Hezbollah has stated they jumped into the fray between Israel and Hamas to take pressure off the Palestinian resistance movements. But it seems likely that their actions were also engineered to bolster Shia influence in Lebanonese politics, and to demonstrate the ability of their organization to attack Israel in the event of a strike against Iran. As well, the recent massively disproportional response by Israel has larger strategic objectives. There are trying to destroy the military capacity of Hezbollah, and possibly embroil them in domestic strife, in order to weaken the a potential Iranian proxy group.
The one counterargument that has me questioning the possibility of an attack is the ability of the Iranians to conduct reprisal attacks on oil transported by tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. This is a very narrow body of water in which something on the order of 1/4 of the world's oil production passes through. Iranian territory makes up the northern shore of the strait and they likely have the potential to disrupt the transport of this vital supply of oil. The Iranian's appear to have some capacity to carry out naval attacks on tankers and US warships, but I think it's safe to assume that the US has the naval and air capabilty to eventually force the Iranian's to stop any such attacks. My guess would be that the Iranian's wouldn't be able to block the flow of oil for long, and/or wouldn't be willing to deal with the consequences of cutting off the transport of oil which is vital for most of the world. If the rest of the world's oil supply is threatened because of Iranian attacks, it will likely push many more countries closer to the US side, since they would want to get their oil fix back ASAP. If what I've outlined is correct and the oil supply can only briefly be interrrupted then you would expect crude prices to spike for a few weeks, or even shorter, and then quickly settle at a much lower level. The new 'floor' on the oil price might be $10-20 higher for some time but that wouldn't be a disaster. I might be underestimating how easy it would be for the Iranians to disrupt this supply of oil for a significant period of time, but I very much doubt they will have the political will to do it.
One thing I don't doubt however is that an attack on Iran will greatly increase tensions all over the region and decrease the stability of a number of Arab governments closely allied with the US. However, while recognizing the reality of this in the short term, this is probably viewed as manageable by the majority of Bush's Neocon crew. After all, I'm sure they're pointing at the Iraq war naysayers who were talking about the 'Arab street' exploding in outrage because of the invasion, which essentially never happened. At the end of the day, all the major US allies are still safely ensconced on their thrones. The neocon policy makers probably think this provides enough evidence to dismiss the 'regime instability' argument.
Personally, I'm quite convinced that a US led attack on Iran will most likely end up harming US interests in the long run. It will almost certainly further damage their standing and influence in the Middle East, further bankrupt the nation, and will probably decrease their own security. Such a provocative escalation will probably end up pulling the US deeper into a 'unwinnable' fight with guerilla forces it won't be able to restrain. You can't wage a 'conventional' war against a people's mistrust and contempt, and it will always be too easy for irregulars to attack US troops and civilian 'allies' in the region.
Having said that, the chances of the conflict spreading uncontrollably throughout the entire region are slim. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. likely won't collapse. Iraq will become more violent, but it already appears to be in a low-level civil war anyway. Bush and his cronies aren't good with 'nuance' and will only see the improbability of total failure, the rest of it to use Rumsfeld's terminology is 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns'. The Bush Neocons haven't altered their basic policy and are still committed to completely reshaping the politics of the region. In the final analysis, what's going to stop them from attacking Iran?
Some excellent corroborating analysis from Jim Lobe below. These articles illustrate the growing calls for war from many of the most influential Neocons.
US Hawks Smell Blood.
The Drums of War Sound for Iran.
A possible roadmap to war with Iran?
Step 1: Start actively propagandizing in mainstream media outlets about the Iranian threat. Plant false accusations and notch up the fearmongering against Iran...has been well underway for some time.
Step 2: Isolate Iran. Destroy Hezbollah, and frighten Syria into submission. From the NYTimes:
US Plan Seeks to Wedge Syria Away From Iran.
So where are we heading?? Looks like a one-way ticket...