The Iranians have clearly concluded that all the American and Israeli threats to attack them are mere bluff. Israel could not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear facilities unless it was willing to drop large numbers of nuclear weapons on Iran. The United States could do the job using only conventional weapons, but in reply Iran could close the Gulf to tanker traffic and cause a global economic crisis. So the U.S. and Israel must be bluffing, unless they are crazy.
This explains the bravado of Iran’s little propaganda show on July 9, when it test-launched a number of ballistic missiles, including one that has the ability to carry a nuclear weapon and the range to strike Israel. This elicited the usual veiled threats of an attack on Iran from both Washington and Jerusalem, but the Iranians don’t believe them any more.
The Shahab-3 missile that the Iranians tested has flown before, and it could indeed reach Israel. But, it lacks a proper guidance system, and probably could not penetrate Israel’s anti-ballistic missile defences.
More importantly, as the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of last December affirmed, Iran has no nuclear weapons, and closed down its programme to develop a nuclear weapons capability in 2003.
The main purpose of the tests was to strengthen the position ofhard-liners in domestic Iranian politics. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards,the organisation that carried them out, wants to keep the confrontationwith the United States and its allies alive because it fears that otherelements in the regime might bargain away Iran's right to enrich nuclearfuel for civilian use.
If neither the United States or Israel intends to attack Iran, thisis a cost-free strategy: you win the domestic political struggle andnothing bad happens to you internationally. If you miscalculate, however,you get a war out of it. What are the odds that the Iranians aremiscalculating?
Many institutions try to analyse this question, and some of themwill charge you quite a lot for an answer. However, all of them areessentially guessing what goes on in the minds of the US president and/orthe Israeli prime minister, both of whom are men in a hurry. Bush leavesoffice in January, and Olmert may be gone by September as the result of acorruption scandal.
President George W. Bush seems to have convinced himself thatsomething must be done about the "Iranian threat" before he goes, but hefaces the almost unanimous opposition of the US military and intelligenceestablishment, who are horrified by the prospect of an unwinnable waragainst Iran. Last December's National Intelligence Estimate was adeliberate attempt to undercut the Bush administration's relentlesspropaganda about the "Iranian nuclear threat."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition government in Israel mightcollapse if he chose to attack Iran alone, and the Israeli military areclearly divided on the feasibility of such an attack. Besides, Israel couldnot do such a thing without Washington's approval -- Israeli aircraft wouldhave to fly through Iraqi airspace, which is under US control -- so it allcomes back to what Bush decides.
He probably doesn't know himself yet, and his main concern must bethat senior soldiers and spies in Washington would go public to oppose suchan adventure. In circumstances like these, I generally consult theInternational Institute for Discussing Current Affairs Over Dinner, whoseadvice can be had for the price of a good meal.
Membership is limited to myself, my wife and my many talentedchildren. Like me, they are experts in everything, and one of our mosteffective analytical tools is an exercise called Setting the Odds. A quorumof the Institute's membership is currently on holiday in southern Morocco,and we deployed this technique at dinner last night.
I offered my colleagues two-to-one odds that neither the UnitedStates nor Israel would attack Iran this year, and they laughed in my face.Their response was the same at odds of four-to-one. At six-to-one oneshowed a mild interest, but still declined the offer. From which I deducethat for all the huffing and puffing in Washington and Jerusalem, an actualattack on Iran this year is extremely unlikely. The Revolutionary Guardsare right.
You may object that this technique lacks scientific rigour. I wouldreply that so does everybody else's, and at least you get a nice meal outof this one. Moreover, we have a good track record, mainly because weassume that while individual leaders may lose the plot, large institutionslike governments and armed forces are generally more rational in theirchoices.
There are occasions when whole countries are so traumatised by someshock that truly bizarre decisions become possible -- the United Statesafter 9/11 was like that for a while -- but this is not one of those times.The US military have been war-gaming possible attacks on Iran since the1990s, and they have never managed to find a scenario that resulted in acredible US victory.
Some people in the White House have convinced themselves that theIranian people will rise up and overthrow their government as soon as thefirst American bombs fall, but the professional soldiers in the Pentagondon't believe in fairy tales. Six-to-one says that there will be no US orIsraeli attack on Iran this year.