Washington, DC – “We [United States and Israel] are strong powers and we need to think carefully about whether we want to engage in military operations which could have very unpredictable results,” said Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, speaking before the Atlantic Council. “We are indeed in a fraught and dangerous situation.”
Riedel, along with Michael Eisenstadt, the Director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discussed rising tensions between the United States, Israel, and Iran and the consequences of a military confrontation. Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, moderated the discussion.
“The U.S and Israel face difficult and potentially fateful decisions regarding Iran. For Israel…the decision to launch a strike or not may be the most fateful decision since the creation of the state,” said Eisenstadt.
Slavin described the current tensions as “a multi-dimensional game of chicken,” between the U.S., Iran, and Israel. “There are obviously a lot concerns that we might see military action of some sort in the near future,” she said.
Reidel also expressed concern over the possibility of an impending military confrontation, warning that an Israeli military strike—potentially without the consent of the United States—would have dire consequences.
“A military strike is an act of war…once we begin it, the determination of when it ends is not a unilateral one anymore,” warned Reidel. He said that the United States should support Israel security by enhancing Israel’s military capabilities, but stressed, “the negatives [of a military conflict] far outweigh the positives.” A war against Iran would weaken the world’s energy markets, further destabilize the world economy, open the door for Iranian retaliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have unintended consequences for both the United States and Israel, he said. And, Riedel noted, ultimately a strike would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by 1-2 years according to estimates.
Eisenstadt said that covert operations against Iran seek to buy time and gain incremental advantage, but said that increased pressure on Iran may be emboldening the Iranian government. He warned that the current escalating tensions increases the potential for miscalculation because the Persian Gulf is “a geographically compact area…with very little time to respond. Because there are no communications between the two sides, there is the heighten potential for miscalculation.”
Reidel recognized the severity of the Iranian problem, but urged caution. “An Iran with nuclear weapons is a bad thing, it is a strategic set back for the entire global community, but it is not apocalyptic,” he reasoned. “The balance of power between Israel and Iran will remain overwhelmingly in Israeli’s favor.” He argued that the Iranian leadership is not inherently irrational, suicidal, or seeking the total destruction of the U.S. and Israel. “The underlying motif of this revolution from day one has been the survival of the revolution,” he said, arguing that this is the main motivation behind Iran’s policy decisions since the formation of the Islamic Republic.
Eisenstadt said that although we are in a period, “in which the potential for conflict with Iran is high… we may be entering a period in which there is perhaps some promise for diplomacy.”
Reidel agreed, saying that all options, including diplomacy, ought to be discussed. There are “no good answers, no simple solutions, [and] many complex questions.”