The risk of an Israeli war with Iran, which has ebbed and flowed over the past year, will be at a pitch over the six weeks to the United States election on 6 November 2012. If war is avoided until then, the danger may rapidly recede. But the world must first survive perhaps one of the most significant periods since the 1979 revolution in Iran.
The increased peril stems from three elements:
* United States domestic politics
* developments around Syria and Iran
* the possibility of an untoward crisis tipping into conflict.
The presidential election
The first element relates to the way that the more hawkish elements in Israel and their supporters in the US greatly fear Barack Obama's re-election. In particular, they anticipate that in the first two years of his second term, he could feel unburdened enough to take a progressive stance on both Palestine and Iran - and to challenge Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The events of recent days present these groups with a dilemma. The revelation of Mitt Romney's disparaging remarks about the "47%", his dismissal of Palestinian attitudes and the hopes of peace with Israel, and his "crazed fanatic" mental flight regarding Iran may all at some level accord with conservative instincts, but to very many Americans less fixed in their views are likely to appear extreme and to suggest incompetence in both domestic and foreign policy. The immediate political fallout indicates that Romney's chances of election are diminishing, and that to reverse the tide he may need an unexpected boost and/or Obama to run into trouble.
Some right-wing observers urged the Republican candidate to respond by reorienting the campaign debate from the economy towards foreign policy - and by focusing especially on Obama's supposed weakness in the face of diverse middle-eastern threats. This course would be equally welcome to domestic and Israeli hardliners: it would allow Romney to argue that Iran had to be confronted and Obama wasn't up to it, justify the Israeli case that a strike against Iran was necessary, change the election atmosphere, and - when oil prices rocketed after the bombs fell - give Obama a huge domestic headache.
It will be hard for the strategy to work, not least because American voters regard economic issues as paramount and in any case could in a military crisis turn towards the leader they know. But at a time when many Israeli hawks see Iran hardening or dispersing its nuclear facilities, and thus moving beyond Israel's sights, their and their US allies' determination to pursue a radical course should not be underestimated.
The Syria-Iran axis
The second element relates to Syria, but is connected to the wider region. It is now clear that Iran is becoming much more involved in supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime, in two distinct ways: by increasing direct military aid in the form of deployment of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and (perhaps more importantly) by receiving permission from Nouri al-Maliki's regime in Baghdad to allow overflight rights to Syria. Both contravene all Washington's diplomatic efforts, and make Iran-Syria links far easier.