Four Ways the U.S. Could End Up at War with Iran Before the Election*

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Ali Haider / EPA

A general view of the beaches of Khasab at the Strait of Hormuz, Musandam, Oman, Jan. 14, 2012.

Most political analysts in Washington believe that war with Iran is unlikely, especially before the November U.S. elections. Politically it would be hard for President Obama to engage in another Middle Eastern war given the war weariness of the U.S. electorate, let alone the question of being able to afford it at a time when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget. There also seems little appetite from the international community to wage war with Iran, especially since Tehran is still allowing United Nations inspectors into their nuclear sites and, for the first time in recent history, sanctions seem to be working.

That said, despite the political, economic and military reluctance to go to war with Iran, there are four ways the U.S. could still end up embroiled in such a conflict before the elections. And by conflict, no one is envisioning troops on the ground. More likely: a bombing campaign or, worst-comes-to-worst, a naval one in the Strait of Hormuz. “I don’t think we’re going to go to war with Iran, but I do think we could get dragged into it,” says Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman Project.

(MORE: Iran Calls New US Sanctions ‘Psychological War’)

Iran wants a war.Not a full-blown one, which would happen if they closed  the Strait of Hormuz, shutting down the flow of oil and provoking international condemnation. But, say, one where they throw out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Such a move would be seen as a deliberate provocation–clear proof that Tehran had decided to head toward weapons grade uranium. If that leads to bombing by the U.S. or Israel or both, the Iranian people would rally around their leaders. “I think there are hardline elements in Tehran that would welcome a military attack,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s a dangerous and unpredictable gamble, but it’s the one thing that could potentially repair the country’s deep internal political fractures and distract from widespread popular disaffection.” It would also be a well-calculated risk: many observers believe that unless an air assault is sustained for weeks and weeks, it would set back the Iranian program only a few months, perhaps two years at most.

Iran underestimates President Obama’s resolve and the U.S. political climate.Let’s face it, the U.S. has drawn dozens of redlines over the past decade and Iran, much like North Korea, has zigzagged all over them with impunity. President George W. Bush seemed to set a new redline every six months that Iran flouted. So far they haven’t tested Obama. But they may think him distracted by the world economy and the presidential election and somehow take this as an opportunity to press forward secretly with enrichment, moving closer to weapons grade uranium. “We don’t know how Iran calculates the pros and cons of getting nukes,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy export at the Brookings Institution. “Given our lack of such knowledge, we should be careful about assuming when they might make their next move.” Given what is known about the Iranian program, it is virtually impossible for it to develop an actual bomb by November 2012. But if Iran did manage to press toward weapons grade materiel under the noses of the IAEA inspectors and this was discovered, then the consequences might be severe. Given his strident statements on Iran (and the bellicose GOP candidates watching his moves), Obama could never allow Iran to get that close to a bomb on his watch without taking action.

(MORE: Obama Seeks to Cool War Fever While Keeping Up Pressure on Iran)

The accidental war. The Strait of Hormuz is a small place for maneuvering and some trigger happy Iranian or American could misfire and the situation could snowball. This has happened before. Towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war when U.S. warships were accompanying oil tankers through the waterway, U.S. naval ships exchanged gunfire accidentally between both Iraqi and Iranian forces in 1987 and 1988. On July 3, 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes, believing it was under attack, shot down an Iranian commercial flight killing all 290 passengers and crew aboard. Just imagine what such an action might trigger in today’s climate.

Israel goes it alone.Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convinced Iran is intent on acquiring a nuclear bomb as soon as possible–with Israel as Tehran’s likely target if it were ever used. Though the U.S. isn’t as convinced of Iran’s intentions, Israel might nevertheless make the political calculation to attack now. Obama and Congress wouldn’t be able to do much to punish Israel before the elections. If the Israelis wait till after the U.S. elections the political repercussions would be a lot harder for the Jewish State. It’s a gamble because if Obama wins reelection, they risk severely damaging relations with the U.S. “I don’t see that U.S. political calendar will compel Israel to attack Iran before November 2012,” says Sadjadpour. “The Israelis could also calculate that it’s better to wait to see a potential Republican administration in Washington in 2013 that might do the job for them.” In any case, few analysts believe Israel would act without U.S. blessing

*I put an asterisk here because although these are all possible ways the U.S. could go to war with Iran in the coming months, the most likely action is nothing at all. “We cannot predict how Iran will react as sanctions bite steadily harder, whether some incident in the Gulf will occur and escalate out of control, or whether an Israeli raid could trigger a conflict between the U.S. and Iran,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What we can predict is that a mixture of escalating Iranian threats and nuclear activities, and the rising impact of U.S. and international sanctions, does increase these risks.”