An Israeli strike on Iran has to be the most over-predicted event of recent years. It
was meant to happen last year. And the year before that. But now there are reasons why 2012 could, indeed, be the year when Israel will find it propitious to take overt military action against
Iran’s nuclear programme. (Everyone assumes that a range of covert activities, from assassinations to cyber attacks, are already ongoing).
The Iranian government is moving closer to having the requisite capabilities, and can reasonably be expected to take the final steps towards nuclearisation. What better way for Tehran to distract
attention from their burgeoning problems — including sanctions, economic hardship, the risk of renewed protest, and possible conflict inside the regime — than to declare that it has
become a nuclear power on a par with the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and, crucially, Israel?
In recent months the Israeli government has certainly made clear that it sees the situation deteriorating, and is therefore seriously considering taking action. But, that said, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu is a calculator, not a risk-taker. And a strike on Iran would certainly be risky, given the possibility of failure and the likely Iranian reaction (as well as that of Egypt,
Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas; who would all love to focus attention on Israel).
And the crucial factor is, as always, what the US would say and do. The Bush administration was thought to have blocked any Israeli strike, whereas the Obama administration has been more ambiguous;
apparently red-lighting an attack, but at the same time selling Israel the bunker-busting bombs needed to reach any Iranian underground facilities.
What’s more, the period during the US presidential election may be the best for Israel to strike. President Obama will be under pressure from the Republicans to back Israeli action — Iran
being seen as the President’s biggest foreign policy weakness — and so he will be constrained in how much he can hold the Israeli government back.
Yet the logistics of a strike have become harder. The Israeli- Turkish spat means that Turkish airspace could no longer be used to fly to Iran and back. And glying over Iraq has become harder now
that the US troops have been withdrawn. The absence of a partner on the ground in Iraq means any search- and-rescue in Iran for downed Israeli pilots will be more difficult — and that will
weigh heavily on the minds of Israeli decision- makers. Nobody wants to see Israeli pilots on Iranian TV, held up for the world to pity Iran and blame Israel.
2012 may end with, as TS Eliot put it, a whimper not a bang. But the balance of probabilities has nonetheless shifted slightly in favour of an Iranian move and a subsequent Israeli strike.