"Never interfere with an enemy while he's in the process of suicide." This is a
quote widely attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, and it is also the advice
Israeli analyst Guy Bechor gives to Israeli leaders. It appears to be more or
less the approach of the United States and its allies with respect to Iran at
the moment. Whether they have read the situation right, and for how long it
will work, is another matter.
In the past few days, the rhetoric has heated up a bit. On Sunday, chairman of
the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen became the most
recent and perhaps highest-ranking US official to confirm that a plan for
striking Iran exists. He stressed that in his opinion, a strike was "a bad
added that the risk of Iran going nuclear was "unacceptable", and refused to
comment which would be worse.
Predictably, Iran went ballistic. "If the Americans make the slightest mistake,
the security of the region will be endangered. Security in the Persian Gulf
should be for all or none," threatened the deputy head of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps, Yadollah Javani. "Tehran will burn down Tel Aviv"
in response to any attack, said Mohammed Khazaee, Iran's ambassador to the
A similarly worrying message echoed in an earlier statement by Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad: "The specter of real peace in the region is disappearing and
the possibility of war is increasing."
Meanwhile, a Hamas military commander was killed on Friday night in a
retaliatory strike for a missile that fell on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, and
the Islamic Jihad militia threatened to resume suicide terror attacks on Israel
from the West Bank. (Hamas is seen by many as an Iranian proxy, and Debka
reported on Sunday that Iran recently sent "$250 million to Hamas for the
creation of a new Palestinian Popular Army in the Gaza Strip".)
Despite all this, we have yet to see a full-scale appeal by the Barack Obama
administration to the international community to support a strike - something
that, judging by Obama's behavior so far, we have every right to expect before
such an action. Some analysts, moreover, remain skeptical as to whether a
strike will happen at all. Steve Clemons for the Huffington Post writes:
the confidence, even eagerness, of the US Air Force to bomb Iran's nuclear
program capacity, the other military services are not so sanguine and fear that
the logistics demands for such a military action and its followup would
undermine other major operations. In other words, adding another major
obligation to America's military roster could literally break the back of the
US military, erode morale, and result in eventual, massive shifts in American
domestic support for the US military machine which had become increasingly
costly and less able to generate the security deliverables expected.
At the very least, it would make sense for Obama to give sanctions a little
more time before he approves any military action. The US president put so much
effort into having the UN Security Council pass them that, if he is seen to
undermine them, this could weaken his international standing considerably.
Moreover, all the military threats could be a powerful impetus for diplomatic
progress. There are persistent reports of intense diplomatic exchanges,
indicating that a new round of negotiations might yet be in the making. 
This only applies, however, as long as Iran is not provoked into doing
something stupid first.
The US and its allies are currently turning the screws on the Islamic Republic
in two ways: firstly by fomenting social unrest inside Iran through sanctions
and other means, and secondly by launching an assault on Iranian proxies such
"As international sanctions mount," writes the Institute for War and Peace
Reporting in a recent piece, "Iran is finding it increasing hard to find buyers
for its oil, and is being forced to offer discounts in order to shift as much
as it can to a falling number of customers." 
Tehran is writhing in internal unrest and economic pain. Even before the most
recent round of sanctions, Iran was gradually slipping further into economic
crisis, rising unemployment and popular discontent with the government. Its
profligate military and nuclear programs only add to the burden and slowly
suffocate the country financially. This is a kind of war of attrition: given
enough time and steady pressure, the West hopes, the Islamic Republic will
Additionally, an initiative seems to be underway to undermine Hezbollah in
Lebanon as well as other Iranian allies. "Mustafa Badr Aldin, the brother
in-law of assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, is the prime suspect
in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri," reported
Israeli Channel 1 last Thursday. Such a development would discredit Hezbollah,
and perhaps pave the way to its disarmament. The militant organization has
vowed not to allow that to happen, and has called the investigation "an Israeli
project". Over the weekend, Saudi King Abdullah, together with Assad, arrived
in Beirut, ostensibly to make sure that the indictment does not start a civil
A number of observers reported that something might be afoot between Saudi
Arabia and Syria. "The elderly Abdullah would not bother himself had he not
been convinced there's someone to talk to and something to talk about," Smadar
Peri writes for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
US think-tank Stratfor concurs: "Saudi Arabia appears to have succeeded in
creating a bulwark of sorts against Iran with Turkish and Syrian support."
Assad's comments from Beirut suggest otherwise ("we consider the resistance a
red line and we will let no harm come to it"), but there is always a difference
between what is said in public and private in the Middle East, as former US
ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has explained. 
Something else that strikes as odd is Syria's silence when the Arab League
endorsed direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations last week.
The much-talked about peace talks , especially if they secure any
significant "confidence-building" gestures to the Palestinian Authority, will
put strong pressure on Hamas. Moreover, sources are reporting that the
situation in Yemen is deteriorating constantly, and that something is afoot
with American, Saudi, and perhaps even Israeli cooperation.
All this pressure could easily produce a violent reaction. "Hezbollah cannot be
expected to go quietly, so the possibility of conflict cannot be entirely
eliminated," writes Stratfor. "In fact, Iran and Hezbollah could upset their
opponents' efforts to defang Hezbollah by provoking Israel to attack Lebanon."
The Gaza front has already seen some violence. Furthermore, the incident with a
Japanese tanker in the Strait of Hormuz last week raised the possibility of a
rogue Iranian Republican Guards attack on international shipping, as Debka
reported.  A minor incident, in turn, could fairly easily escalate into a
It is still unclear how well, exactly, the American-led campaign against Iran
is working. Syria's behavior is key, perhaps even decisive. Damascus is the
most crucial link between Iran and Hezbollah, and also has a strong influence
on Hamas. Moreover, Assad's behavior is a political barometer of sorts.
It is not inconceivable that the Syrian president does away with Hezbollah; in
fact, in that case he would be doing much what his father Hafez Assad did
during the Lebanese civil war - first supporting one faction, then throwing it
to the wolves. If he believes that he has squeezed his relationship with Iran
and Hezbollah dry, or that his allies are going down, he will probably not
hesitate to jump ship.
If, however, he calculates that the Iran-Hezbollah alliance will come out
whole, and if it offers him more, he could easily continue to zigzag. In the
meantime, he is all too happy to reap the benefits of his vacillations, such as
a warming in his ties with the West and the rest of the Arab world, saving his
close associates the Hariri tribunal, and increasing his influence in Lebanon.
The next few weeks will reveal the true effects of the American pressure.
Meanwhile, we can expect surprises and vacillations.