Most analyses of the benefits and risks involved in attacking Iran have been military: Will the nuclear program be destroyed or merely delayed? Will Teheran rain missiles over Tel-Aviv? Will Hezbollah and Hamas join the fray?
These questions measure the cost in terms of bloodshed and destruction brought forth –or avoided – to Israel. Nevertheless wars do not happen in a vacuum. It is thus worth considering the potential economic and diplomatic fallout of a conflict engulfing the Middle East.
The first effect of a conflict would be rocketing oil prices. Barrel price estimates in a war scenario range from US$150 to around double this amount. What will this mean to a Europe tethering on the brink of bankruptcy? Can the USA assist Israel militarily without being embroiled in a war that aggravates its deficit and debt problems?
The effects of an oil price surge in addition to market volatility make economic forecasting models predict war will generate a global recession. This situation will generate the kind of mass unemployment which is fertile ground for political extremism.
In such a gloomy climate, the unemployed masses would probably pick a more conventional scapegoat than Iranian Shiites for their problems. During the 1930s millions of Europeans and Americans believed that Jewish financiers had a hand in causing the Great Depression. It would be wise for Israel’s leaders to consider how a global economic slump triggered by an Israeli attack would benefit anti-Semites.
Even supposing we have underestimated love for Israel among the nations, Netanyahu must reckon with realpolitik. Modern history teaches that wars in the Middle East involving America have led the latter to exact heavy concessions from Israel. The aftermath of the Gulf War was the Madrid Conference which in turn led to the Oslo Accords. And after the second Gulf War even the staunchly pro-Israel President Bush pressured Israel to withdraw from Gaza. We do not need too much fantasy to fathom the price that the world powers would exact from Israel following a third conflict in the region.
The blowback from a rushed Israeli attack on Iran will probably be another “peace conference” where an irate Europe, an enraged Russia, and an exhausted America impose on Israel what the international community still regards as the panacea to the Israeli-Muslim conflict: a full withdrawal from the West Bank along the borders of 1967.
Even if an attack on Iran delays its nuclear program for a few years, the dynamics of Middle East diplomacy mean that Israel will pay the bill for any war by giving Fatah & Hamas a state in the West Bank. Will this state be peaceful? Given the Gaza precedent the evidence suggests that this state will be an irredentist proxy of an Iran bent on revenge. And given that in a few years Iran might very well be able to rebuild its nuclear capabilities it appears short-sighted to pay for evanescent gains with a strategic calamity.
Israel should attack Iran only if there are good probabilities that this attack will pulverize Iran’s nuclear program. If these numbers are missing, Israel should push the world powers to declare that diplomatic, economic and military sanctions on Iran will be removed only when Iran’s nuclear program is cancelled or when fair and open elections are held in Iran.
The benefits of such demands are twofold: On the one hand, Iran’s leaders will see that a successful race towards nuclear weapons will not save their regime from economic castration and diplomatic isolation. This will slacken the ayatollahs’ lust for nuclear bombs. On the other hand, Ahmadinejad will no longer be able to pander to Persian national pride with his regime’s nuclear program. Iranians will realize that sanctions imposed by the West target the regime they hate, not the country they love.
This approach deserves consideration. Indeed, the survival of Israel is owed in no small degree to past leaders distinguishing calculated risk-taking from gambling. Netanyahu and Barak must realize that an ill-planned war might very well pave the roads to Jerusalem for Zion’s enemies. This would be a genuine tragedy for Jews and Gentiles alike.