Dominic Tierney – The Atlantic April 16, 2012
The Dial is set by a panel of high profile experts—from the policy world, academia, and journalism – that we’ve assembled to periodically predict the odds of conflict. It includes: Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Golnaz Esfandiari, Azar Gat, Jeffrey Goldberg, Amos Harel, Ephraim Kam, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Matthew Kroenig, John Limbert, Valerie Lincy, James Lindsay, Marc Lynch, Gary Milhollin, Trita Parsi, Paul Pillar, Barry Rubin, Karim Sadjadpour, Kenneth Timmerman, Shibley Telhami, Stephen Walt, and Robin Wright.
It’s a diverse group ranging from a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, to a military correspondent at Haaretz. Each panelist makes an individual prediction about the percentage chance of war and we report the average score. For more on The Atlantic‘s Iran War Dial and the panelists, here’s our FAQ page.
During the last month, the tide of war seems to have receded. Most importantly, talks have restarted with Iran, after being suspended over a year ago. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that, “it is not in anyone’s interest for [Israel] to take unilateral action. It is in everyone’s interest for us to seriously pursue at this time the diplomatic path.”
In a modest potential concession, Iran offered to stop enriching 20 percent uranium, which is one step below weapons-grade uranium, but only after it has stockpiled enough uranium for “medical research.” Meanwhile, the United States and its allies demanded that Iran shut down a key nuclear facility at Fordow. Few analysts expect a rapid breakthrough.
Other recent developments may also have moved the dial in a dovish direction. Shaul Mofaz became head of the main opposition party in Israel, the Kadima Party, and offered a cautious view of the Persian danger. “The greatest threat to the state of Israel is not nuclear Iran,” but the growing number of Palestinians living in Israeli controlled territory. “So it is in Israel’s interest that a Palestinian state be created.”
Sanctions against Iran are also having a significant impact on Tehran’s financial transactions and its ability to sell crude oil–although the effect of this tightening vice on peace talks is not clear.
Our prediction of a 42 percent chance of war is consistent with the betting market Intrade.com, which found that in recent weeks the odds of conflict have fallen from 40 percent to 30 percent. The Atlantic‘s figure may be higher because our question covers a longer time period—until April 2013, rather than December 2012 as with Intrade.com.
This month, we also forecast the odds of Iranian retaliation following an Israeli or U.S. strike.
A classified American war game predicted that a unilateral Israeli attack would entrap the United States in a wider regional war. The simulation forecast that Tehran would retaliate against U.S. warships in the region, potentially killing 200 American sailors, and in turn provoking the United States to strike Iran. Following the war game, General James Mattis, commander of American forces in the region, “told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.”
By contrast, Israeli officials have tried to downplay the likely consequences of an Israeli air strike. Last November, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.”
According to the panel, if Israel strikes Iran in the next twelve months, there is a 64 percent chance that Iran will launch rockets against Israel. There is a 66 percent chance that Hezbollah in Lebanon will fire rockets against Israel.
Meanwhile, if the United States strikes Iran in the next twelve months, there is a 36 percent chance that Iran will make a serious attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. And there is a 44 percent chance that Iran will directly attack U.S. forces in the region (this scenario only covers an assault by Iranian forces, and not indirect attacks such as enhanced aid to insurgents in Afghanistan, which many analysts believe is even more likely).
Perhaps with an eye to these dangers, in recent weeks, the United States, Israel, and Iran have taken a small step back from the Rubicon.