Bibi toasts his hosts. Jordan, 1996.

For ten years now, I’ve been answering questions about the potential for war with Iran. During this decade, I have repeatedly decried the neoconservative push to war with Iran, but maintained that war wasn’t going to happen. Since 2001, events in the region have borne me out. Even today, if forced to give a simple yes or no prediction, I’d rule war out. However, the danger of it has never been closer, or more real.

There’s plenty of fault to be laid on all interested parties for the escalating tensions. Iran, for its part, has cultivated a crisis with the United States, with its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to international shipping, a move which could severely impact the global economy (the absolute worst thing that can happen to an American president in an election year) at a time when Europe continues to totter on the precipice of another major economic crisis.

There have been other times when the rhetoric, and even some actions, threatened a ramp-up to war. Yet, never before have I been this concerned. What’s different today? The biggest difference is the behavior of the Israeli government.

Neocons in the US have been pushing for an attack on Iran, the consequences be damned. They’ve learned nothing from the debacle in Iraq. Indeed, they were pushing for military action against the Iranians while the US forces were bogged down in both Iraq and Afghanistan during the middle of the last decade.

Cooler heads routinely prevailed. Even during the aggressive Bush Administration days, the US military recognized the foolishness of this idea, and the Israeli governments of both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert voiced their fears about Iran, but refrained from aggressively pushing the US toward war, despite some covert operations that met with American displeasure.

Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been advocating aggressive action against Iran for over two decades. But when he returned to the Prime Minister’s office in the spring of 2009, neoconservatives were entirely out of favor in the US, disgraced by the misadventure in Iraq, and well outside of President Obama’s foreign policy circle.

Without their powerful presence in the executive branch of the US government, the neoconservatives have turned their focus on Congress, using their tight-knit and often incestuous relationship with AIPAC to push hard for ever stronger and more threatening measures against Iran.

Iran itself helps the neocons here. The most predictable result (and it was predicted, not just by myself and other peace advocates, but by virtually every mainstream analyst who was not a neoconservative) of the Iraq war was the unleashing of Iranian power. By abandoning the policy of dual containment that had held throughout the Clinton Administration, and by destroying Iraq’s military, Iran was unfettered, and began to expand its influence much further, not only in the Gulf region, but throughout the Arab world.

Despite the sanctions that Iran faces today, it has established itself as the key rival to Western power in the region, and it behaves accordingly. It does not pursue war as a general strategy. Iran has never engaged in an aggressive military conflict.

But it does employ lower-level means, including violence through its agents. As its ability to construct a nuclear weapon becomes clearer, it is certainly a legitimate strategic concern for the US and its key regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Part of being a regional power is acting tough. Iran does this with its shows of defiance of the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA.) It does it more specifically with its threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz. This forces a tougher response from a US President who cannot afford to look weak in an election year.

The hysteria over Iran developing a nuclear weapon is an artificial construct designed to terrify, primarily, US and Israeli citizens into supporting ever more aggressive action against Tehran. In reality, Israelis and Americans who are familiar with Iran know that Iran would see a nuclear weapon as a strategic asset, not something they are looking to point and fire at Israel.

The hysteria, however, serves a purpose, precisely because the US and Israel recognize that an Iranian nuclear capability will change the strategic outlook in the region. Iranian allies, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, will be operating under a nuclear umbrella. That’s the minor point.

The major one is that an Iranian nuclear capability breaks the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region, and thereby completely alters Israel’s strategic calculus. The real problem is less Hezbollah or Syria operating under the Iranian nuclear umbrella; it is much more the erosion of Israel’s own ultimate deterrent.

Some see this as yet another opportunity to have Israel confess to its nuclear arsenal — one of the worst-kept secrets in the world, and intentionally so — and establish a nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East.

That’s a great idea, but one that is not likely to materialize. Also, we may not like it, but one can certainly understand the Israeli government’s view that its nuclear monopoly is a major security asset, perhaps even its greatest one, and that they will go to great lengths to keep it.

That’s fair enough from a coldly pragmatic point of view. But trying to push the US into fighting Iran is not justified by any security concerns, reasonable or otherwise.

Is that push happening? The neoconservatives are certainly pushing it hard, and their connection to Netanyahu has been well documented for fifteen years now.

Still, the assassination of another of Iran’s top nuclear scientists cannot be laid definitively at Israel’s feet. It is possible that certain factions within Iran are interested in seeing an attack that could increase the instability already plaguing the Iranian regime.

But the more likely answer is that it was indeed Israel that was behind this. The silence of the Netanyahu government regarding the killing stands in stark contrast to Washington’s vociferous denials, and there have been subtle hints for some time that Israel has been initiating these attacks. Certainly, a great many Israelis believe their government was the culprit here.

Whoever committed the murder was most certainly doing it with an eye toward the current situation. The killing came at a point of both heightened tensions and serious renewed efforts at a US-Iran dialogue. Thus it was very well-timed to maximally impact a push toward greater tensions.

At the same time, Netanyahu has called for a definitive American threat of military action, while his deputy has bemoaned his “disappointment” with Obama. Meanwhile, over the objections of the Obama administration, the Senate unanimously passed an AIPAC-sponsored bill outlawing contact with Iran’s Central Bank, imposing sanctions on international institutions that deal with it. This will hinder any hope of negotiations and will harden Iranian defiance, further increasing tensions. Another resolution, demanding war if Iran attains a nuclear weapon, was just introduced a week ago.

There is a powder keg being built here, and it is increasingly unstable. Iran has consistently avoided steps toward war, and the US is trying to tone things down. But Israel has refused to even assure the US that it is not planning to attack Iran without US agreement.

The Israeli government, and its allies in Washington, are working hard to initiate a conflict with Iran. Such a war would be a disaster for everyone involved, and would be clearly unpopular, in both the US and in Israel.

Are these really the actions of a friend, an ally, a country that deserves a “special relationship” with a superpower? Benjamin Netanyahu certainly seems to think so. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so willing to lead America to war.

Photograph courtesy of the Israeli Government Press Office. Published under a Creative Commons license.