Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.
Either Israel and the United States are engaged in a brilliant psychological operations campaign against Iran or the two long-time allies really are talking past each other on the subject of Tehran’s reach for a nuclear bomb. Either way, all this Bibi Netanyahu said, Leon Panetta said chatter is producing some truly jangled nerves over in Iran on the subject of Israel’s allegedly imminent attack on that country’s nuclear program facilities.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps publicly implying that his nation can’t wait on Iranian events for as long as the Obama administration – with its looming embargo of Iranian oil sales to the West – would like. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta keeps tripping over his own tongue, saying one day that America is doing its best to keep Israel’s attack jets grounded and the next offhandedly remarking to reporters that Tel Aviv is inevitably going to pull that trigger sometime this spring.
Again, as psyop campaigns go, this is brilliant, because it not only keeps the Iranians nervous and guessing, it forces them out into the diplomatic open with all manner of implausible counter-threats that reveal their increasing desperation.
Stipulating all this brinkmanship - coordinated or not - this week’s Wikistrat crowd-sourced analysis exercise involves imagining the range of possible pathways to an Israel-Iran war. We don’t offer odds here. We just try to cover a wide array of possible vectors toward the trigger-pulling point.
1) Duh! Haven’t you noticed that Israel and Iran are already conducting a covert war of cyberattacks, assassinations, etc.?
Fair enough. Israel attacked Iran with the Stuxnet computer virus months ago, and has targeted Iranian scientists since. Now, we’ve got Iran pulling its usual tactic of hitting Israeli diplomats (or their loved ones) in softer target zones (Georgia, India, Thailand). So why not just admit that the war has begun? All it takes is one side or the other escalating to missile or air strikes.
Remember when the Israeli assassination squad got caught on camera in Dubai a while back? Just plug that one in, along with a show trial of the “Jewish criminals” in Tehran, and we’re good to go. Same would hold for the right attempt on a senior Israeli leader inside Israel. Moreover, as Israel steps up its cyber campaign, eventually we could see some real-world damage unfolding, forcing Tehran’s hand (or vice versa).
In such a tit-for-tat dynamic, with both sides ratcheting up the threats seemingly every week, leaders are - either inadvertently or purposefully - tying their hands for when the undeniable “disaster” arises and when the fear of “losing face” becomes the ultimate triggering dynamic in a region where keeping face is near everything.
2) Contentious parliamentary election in Iran + peaking of regime infighting = senior defector with “smoking gun” evidence of weaponization
Iran’s parliamentary elections are just days away, so simply imagine the same level of electoral fraud as the 2009 presidential election, cue up the street protests to be violently crushed, and then let the factional infighting begin inside the increasingly beleaguered Iranian regime. Between the looming embargo and ally Bashar al-Assad’s coming fall in Syria, Tehran is feeling alone these days. Another round of the Green Movement could easily trigger some house-cleaning purges within the government, as true believers weed out the wavering souls.
At that point, all we need to start a war is the right disgruntled (and/or virtuous) official to smuggle out, Wikileaks-style, some bulletproof evidence that Tehran is much closer to weaponizing its nuclear capacity than previously estimated. That alone might be enough for Israeli hawks to act.
A variant on this scenario is that Iran actually engineers a fake whistle-blower to fool the West into thinking it’s already got a nuclear deterrent in hand - however crude. Don’t think Iran would try something that risky? Just remember how well Saddam Hussein spoofed the U.S. intelligence community regarding his own Weapons of Mass Destruction capacity in the run-up to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
3) The path to war runs through Lebanon
Iran, sensing that its Syrian supply line to Hezbollah could disappear at any moment, decides to pre-emptively activate its co-religious Shiite militia in an attack on Israel’s northern border towns. With upwards of 200,000 Iranian missiles already in hand, Hezbollah could put on quite a show, triggering a massive retaliation campaign from Israel designed to temporarily reduce the militia’s firepower capacity.
With guns already blazing and Israelis already dying, Netanyahu could decide he’s already facing the Iranian counterattack scenario, so why not pursue the air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities at the same time?
4) The path to war runs through the Sinai
This would involve the same basic decision dynamic on Israel’s part: If we’re going to suffer the anticipated blowback from attacking Iran anyway, then we might as well get our attack on its nuclear program in as well.
Here, the fear is of a “second front” (or third, if we’re counting Hezbollah in the north) on Israel’s east, when Egypt’s ascendant Muslim Brotherhood decides to placate popular anti-Israeli fervor there by publicly disavowing the Camp David accords and moving toward a remilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, raising the specter of a super-empowered Hamas in the Gaza Strip wreaking havoc from the rear during any fight with Iran. All Israel needs to act are enough signs of that scenario unfolding and the 1967 War instinct kicks in - as in, in the face of a ganging-up scenario, it’s better to land the first blows.
5) The “road to Damascus” scenario, take one
Turkey and Iran are locked into an increasingly open rivalry throughout the region over who will win the leadership role thanks to the unfolding Arab Spring. Frankly, Turkey’s on a roll, as it’s eating Iran’s lunch across North Africa and now threatens to add a post-al-Assad Syria to its pool of Islamist protégés.
The scenario here involves al-Assad falling so fast that Iran panics over Turkey’s expanding sphere of influence and ruptures its ties with Ankara. Sensing a golden opportunity of divided ranks and diverted attentions, Israel strikes Iran.
6) The “road to Damascus” scenario, take two
Syria dissolves into such a cauldron of civil war that Turkey, Israel and Iran all end up fighting each other there via proxies. As the spillover threatens Israel more directly through a shared - and contested border - Tel Aviv decides it might as well take care of business directly with Iran.
7) The road to war runs through Bahrain
Iran, desperate to divert attention elsewhere, does its best to re-ignite a Shiite rebellion inside Bahrain, forcing the Saudis to send troops yet again and shifting the international community’s attention back to the evil of Sunni autocracy there. The Saudis then may green light Israel’s long-standing offer to attack Iran through Saudi airspace.
8) Iran actually goes through with its Strait of Hormuz threat
The Iranian navy starts laying mines under the cover of night, forcing a countering U.S. Navy de-mining operation. With tension ratcheted, Iranian fast boats start harassing U.S. ships in a scene right out of the legendary Operation Millennium Challenge war game conducted by the Defense Department in 2002 – and made so famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book, Blink. Fast-forward through a series of bad choices on both sides and we’ve got a shooting war that Israel joins.
9) The always anticipated - but rarely delivered - “October surprise”!
Israel simply plans its attack for the eve of the U.S. presidential election, knowing President Barack Obama’s hands will be tied. The Pentagon’s many China hawks, eager to test out their new high-tech AirSea Battle Concept, readily accept the challenge, sensing a golden opportunity to signal strategic intent - and capabilities - to Beijing.
10) Israel takes the high (altitude) road and “nukes” Iran first
No, we’re not talking actual strikes with nuclear bombs. Instead, in a bold step, Israel’s triggers a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) by detonating a nuclear device over Iran. Whatever facilities in Iran come under its line-of-sight radiation blast suffer a permanent shorting-out electrical effect. While the impact on Iran’s underground nuclear facilities wouldn’t be decisive, Tehran’s ability to control its own population would be temporarily devastated, possibly opening the door for internal rebellion.
But more to the point, Israel’s attack would be a declaration of its nuclear status, replete with the ability to deliver those weapons along strategic lines (see Israel’s recent testing of its Jericho III ballistic missiles). This would be Netanyahu’s decision to reveal to the world the true extent of Israel’s significant nuclear arsenal.
That’s Wikistrat's “wisdom of the crowd” for this week.
Now tell us which path you find most plausible, or what other scenarios you can envision in the comments section below. And be sure to check out more at Wikistrat.com, a cutting-edge global consultancy.