There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible. No one can now calculate the odds of a serious conflict in the Gulf, or preventive strikes on Iran, or how the two might interact. The fact is, however, that negotiations are not yet making clear progress, there is a steady rise in tensions and military readiness in the Gulf, the United States is enforcing still more sanctions on Iran, and the last week has seen Israel's leaders become involved in new debates over the timing and prospects of preventive strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
No one may want war, and there may be good rational reasons for all sides to avoid it. The fact remains, however, that tensions are rising, and the risk of miscalculation is growing. Moreover, it is not clear that Iran truly understands the growing risk it faces that years of Israeli and U.S. warnings can turn into action.
Some talk about a "Sarajevo" or "Guns of August" scenario and a clash or incident followed by unintended escalation to a large-scale conflict. Some talk about Israel reaching its own redlines for military action, long before the United States and its allies, and acting unilaterally, knowing that it may trigger a far larger conflict and one where Iran may suffer far more from the escalation that follows than from Israeli action alone. It is equally possible, however, that war can come from the same conditions that helped trigger World War II-years of negotiations and threats, where the threats failed to be taken seriously until war become all too real.
The U.S. election has added to the ambiguity. There does not seem to be any real difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on this issue, and both parties in Congress seem to support a military option as a last resort. Political maneuvering and opportunism does, however, raise tensions, while the administration's efforts to damp tensions down may make Iran feel that the threats growing out of U.S. politics are beginning to seem hollow.
The Israeli debate may have the same impact. On the one hand, some argue that the campaign is the right time for Israel to strike because no candidate can afford not to support Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli press keeps reporting that senior Israeli officers and intelligence experts oppose any Israeli strike and feel it might be ineffective. Once again, the net effect is to raise tensions in the region, while possibly undercutting Iranian perceptions of the risk of war.
Other wild cards add to the mix. Iran's buildup of asymmetric warfare capabilities and missile forces has steadily raised the concerns of its neighbors, who increasingly fear Iran's nuclear developments as much as Israel. The Syrian crisis has led to growing tensions between Iran and the Southern Gulf states and Turkey. Sunni and Shi'ite tensions are rising in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the competition for influence in a divided Iraq adds to these tensions, along with Arab suspicions that Iran helped to destabilize Yemen. Lebanon and Hezbollah add to these tensions on the Arab side, while Sunni jihadist extremists increase them on the part of Iran.