War clouds gather in the Middle East
By Victor Kotsev
An all-out war in the Middle East is hardly in anybody's interest, yet it may
happen, either as an escalation of a lower-intensity conflict, or because one
of the sides miscalculates or is pushed into a corner.
A more localized outbreak, for example in Gaza or in parts of Syria, is
considerably more likely, given the incredible buildup of arms and words in the
region; in the mid-term, an American-backed or led attack on Iran is not
inconceivable, as the wheels of both bureaucracy and rhetoric are clearly
rolling in that direction.
Outward "signs" coming from the region are clearly not peaceful. Syria is
becoming ever less stable, Hezbollah is restive, and the Gaza Strip has
accumulated more weapons than ever before (and an all-but-open rivalry has
developed between the ruling Hamas
and the more tightly aligned with Iran second-largest militant organization
there, Islamic Jihad).
Iran is seething - some of the latest developments include an attack on the
British Embassy, a reported downing of an American stealth drone, and a couple
of major explosions that reportedly obliterated a key Iranian missile testing
base and damaged nuclear installations near the city of Isfahan. 
Israel is rapidly expanding its capacity to mitigate the impact of its enemies'
most formidable offensive weapons - missiles. A couple of weeks ago, the
Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported, Israel received additional Patriot
anti-missile systems from "a friendly country". 
If confirmed, this acquisition would suggest an extraordinary step taken by the
Israeli government in the face of an imminent threat (one memory it brings up
is of the Gulf War, when the United States stationed Patriot missiles in Israel
to counter the threat of Saddam Hussein's Scuds).
Meanwhile, a third Iron Dome battery (against short-range missiles) has also
reportedly been deployed by the Israeli Defense Forces in the past month or so.
 During the last significant flare-up in October, Israel only had two
functioning batteries, one of which failed to deploy immediately.
The Israelis have turned their anti-Iran rhetoric up to what seems a maximum in
the past weeks. Given that past Israeli military operations relied on surprise,
this circumstance likely suggests that an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear
program is not imminent, but also that Israel is building up its case before
the international community, justifying an attack in the future.
"We can't wait and say - we'll see if they have a bomb, and then we'll act,"
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak commented recently, responding to American
pressure to hold off from an attack. "What if by then we will not be able to
act?"  In the past few days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also
directed a new round of veiled threats at Iran. 
Despite all the threats, Israel is understandably reluctant to engage in an
operation on its own - especially right now, while it is still taking delivery
of new anti-missile technology. A fourth Iron Dome battery, critical against
the formidable short-range missile arsenal of pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon
and Gaza, is expected early next year, to be followed several months later by a
fifth (Israel needs around 15 for near-complete protection on all fronts, so
every installation counts).
Some time in 2012, moreover, the new Arrow 3 exo-atmospheric anti-ballistic
missile system, one of the most advanced in the world, is scheduled to be
unveiled. It is as good an answer to Iran's ballistic missile threat as any,
and if that is forthcoming, it may be worth waiting for.
This timeline seems consistent, moreover, with the time frame for an Israeli
attack by the second half of next year circulated by Israeli media and critics
of such an attack, such as the influential former Mossad (Israeli spy service)
director Meir Dagan, and attributed to Barak. 
In the meantime, while arming itself (and basking in the warmth of American
generosity), Israel can sit back and allow a kind of war of attrition to go on.
Sanctions wear down the Iranian economy, civil unrest wears down the Iranian
allies in the region (specifically Syria, and indirectly Hezbollah), and
sabotage and missteps wear down the Iranian nuclear and missile program. The
much-rumored Israeli cyber-warfare program may yet offer new surprises, and set
the Iranian military programs further back. 
A war in Gaza, however, is considerably more likely in the next months. It
could be provoked (like several other recent violent episodes near Gaza) by
Islamic Jihad, a militant organization considered Iran's pawn and the major
rival of Hamas in the Strip. There are increasing recent reports of tensions
between Iran and Hamas, with the latter reportedly planning to pull out of
As Israeli journalist Amir Oren suggests, Israel may also have a motivation to
expedite a war in Gaza that it may see as inevitable, in light of the Egyptian
elections and the likelihood that the next Egyptian government would be hostile
to any Israeli military operation in the Strip. 
The United States, on the other hand, is coming under ever greater pressure to
do something about the Iranian nuclear program. Its diplomatic initiatives are
in disarray, new rounds of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council
were rejected by Russia and China, and the American allies in the Middle East
are showing increasing signs of impatience.
The military option is increasingly looking like the only way to resolve the
crisis while maintaining a measure of control over the situation. A number of
top American officials now publicly acknowledge that they are not sure if
Israel will not surprise them with an air strike that could bring disastrous
consequences. Saudi Arabia, moreover, is now all but publicly threatening to
join the nuclear arms race if nothing is done against Iran. 
Though it can be difficult to gain detailed insight into American
administrations - the current one included - it is a big and cumbersome
bureaucracy that in many aspects functions according to broad policies that are
hard to change and to resist, even by top officials.
Thus, whether we believe that former US president George W Bush was behind the
National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 (which claimed that Iran had halted its
nuclear weapons program back in 2003)  or not, it more or less tied his
Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran last month,
which showed that estimate wrong, is bound to put pressure on current President
Barack Obama to attack, whatever his personal inclinations are.