The increasingly tense stand-off over Iran’s developing nuclear program threatens to plunge the Middle East into its biggest crisis since 1973.
That was when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Israel eventually repelled the invaders, but only after many casualties. As in the Six Day War six years earlier, the US (which backed Israel) and the Soviet Union (which supported Egypt and Syria) had a tense standoff that fortunately didn’t lead to a wider war.
Several harsh, local wars have been fought since—the first and second Lebanon wars, the two Palestinian intifadas, and the Gaza war. But with the demise of the Soviet Union, none of them spread throughout the region. Treaties Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan have kept those perennial antagonists out of the battle, and a cold peace with Syria over the Golan Heights has held.
But now, several factors could make any conflict spiral out of control.
- If Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, as its leaders have warned it could do, its planes would have to fly over Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Turkey. All three are hostile to the Jewish State to one degree or another, although only Turkey has the military strength to do anything about it and Sunni Saudi Arabia might secretly welcome an attack on Shi’a Iran, even by Israel.
- Iran has a web of alliances throughout the region, particularly Syria and the Shi’a terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Hamas, the Palestinian militant party that rules Gaza, has quietly distanced itself from Iran recently.) Iran is likely to respond to any attack by Israel with a missile barrage from its own long-range arsenal and it may enlist Hezbollah’s 50,000 missiles to retaliate on Israel just across the Lebanese border. That could lead to a third Lebanon war, with Israel striking back against Hezbollah.
- Syria is engulfed in a near-civil war as the brutal Assad family clings to power. Iran backs the regime, which is part of a Shi’a-oriented Alawite minority in a country that’s overwhelmingly Sunni. Syria and Israel still have guns pointed at each other amid a welter of minefields on the Golan Heights. Who knows if they might be enlisted in this battle by their patron Iran?
- Russia is also a big supporter of Syria, financially and militarily, and the Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only military base outside the old Soviet Union. With Vladimir Putin running for president again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him act like a macho man and threaten to intervene in support of Iran or Syria.
- Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Israel attacks—or even if the West imposes an oil embargo. Some 20% of the world’s oil supply passes through that narrow waterway (on the right of the map below), including oil from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the Gulf states. The US Navy (along with Great Britain and France) undoubtedly would try to keep the Strait open, potentially leading to open conflict between the US and Iran, which could have vast repercussions beyond the region.
How would this all play out? There are many possibilities, and the icy relations between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don’t help. Also, a war is the last thing the president needs in an election year, but he may not have a choice.
A rough peace has prevailed in the Middle East since the guns stopped firing in 1973. It’s looking doubtful that “peace” will last long enough to mark its 40th anniversary.