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The first possibility begins with a new regionally-based conventional war. In recent years, Israel has fought major campaigns against Hezbollah and Hamas — both proxies of Iran. It is likely to be attacked by them again. Furthermore, Iran’s only regional state ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, recently threatened that any attempt by the international community to intervene on the side of the revolutionary opposition would generate a Syrian and Hezbollah missile attack on Israel’s cities that would “set fire” to the Middle East. An appeal by the Arab League for international intervention against Assad might be forthcoming. If, indeed, Syria were to respond by attacking Israel, and especially if Hezbollah were to join in, Israel could argue that it was under major aggression from the long arm of Iran. Conceivably, its response could include targets there.
A second possibility involves escalation centering on Iraq following America’s withdrawal by the end of 2011. Many in the region expect Iran to seek to increase its influence in Shi’ite-ruled Iraq. This could conceivably include establishing some sort of direct or proxy military presence on Iraqi soil — to shore up support for Assad and establish a land link to Syria and Hezbollah, to outflank Saudi Arabia and pressure Jordan. It could be understood by Israel, and not only by Israel, as a casus belli that radically threatens Israel’s strategic depth to the east.
Under either one of these options, a retaliatory — not pre-emptive — Israeli attack against Iran might even be limited, essentially “symbolic”: a warning to keep out of the region and rein in its allies; a warning — acceptable to the region and the world — as to what might come next.
Some variation on these regional options appears more likely than a highly problematic Israeli preventive attack.
Yossi Alpher is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits bitterlemons.net.