The Sixth Crisis

Iran, Israel, America, and the Rumors of War

A balanced, even-handed account of the forces that are driving Iran, Israel, and the United States toward crisis, and what can be done to defuse it.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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As the international community's concern over Iran's nuclear program grows, and UN Security Council sanctions against Iran prove to be ineffective, an apprehensive Israel gets closer to launching an attack on Iran, warn Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Adjunct Senior Fellow Steven Simon and International Institute for Strategic Studies Senior Fellow Dana H. Allin.

In their new book, The Sixth Crisis: Iran, Israel, America and the Rumors of War, Simon and Allin write, "there is every reason to worry that, in the coming years or months, a fearful Israel will conclude that it is cornered, with no choice but to launch a preventive war aimed at crippling Tehran's nuclear infrastructure and thereby removing—or at least forestalling—what Israelis consider a threat to the Jewish state's very existence."

The authors predict that "the likelihood of Israel deciding to attack depends on Israeli assessments of U.S. and international resolve to block Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons capability; the state of the Iranian program; the amount of time a successful strike would buy to be worth the expected risks and costs; whether Israel believes there is a clandestine program, which would lead some Israelis to conclude that an attack would buy no time at all; and the effect of a strike on U.S.-Israel relations."

Simon and Allin call this the "sixth crisis" that will reshape the Middle East and America's role in it. The book details the previous five, which are:

  • The 1956 plot by Britain, France, and Israel to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt.
  • The extended crisis of 1967–1973—seven years that were bracketed by two Arab-Israeli wars.
  • The 1979 Iranian revolution.
  • The 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein.
  • The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Simon and Allin warn that the "sixth crisis" would have a catastrophic impact on local stability and U.S. relations with regional actors. Should an attack happen, "air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities might not be a limited affair: in the worst case, they could ignite a general war between Israel and Iran that would suck in the United States; drive millions of Arabs, Sunnis, as well as Shi'a, to side with Iran; reinvigorate the terrorist jihad; destroy the Israel-Palestine peace process; and decisively end America's attempt to restore its moral footing and reestablish its leadership role in the world."

To prevent these outcomes, the authors call on the Obama administration to "construct a credible regime of containment, including sufficient reassurance in the form of strengthened military protection and guarantees for Israel and Arab states." The goal of containment would be "to enforce a redline before weaponization, nuclear testing, or withdrawal from the NPT [nuclear nonproliferation treaty]."

While the authors encourage the further exploration of sanctions and mechanisms of diplomacy, "a successful regime of containment will also have to include a readiness, under certain circumstances, for U.S. military action. Washington can make clear that Iran's use of nuclear weapons would trigger an overwhelming American retaliation through whatever means were necessary to guarantee the destruction and demise of Iran's ruling regime."

The authors conclude that "the compressed coil of disaster linking Iran, Israel, and the United States is not the only problem facing the Obama administration, and it may not even be its worst problem. But Iran's defiance and Israel's panic are the fuses for a war that could destroy all of Obama's other ambitions. The sixth crisis could shape our world for many years to come."


Reviews and Endorsements

Allin and Simon provide a masterful account of the defining security challenge of the decade. The authors bring the right stuff to the task. Simon is an experienced Middle East hand who has witnessed presidential decision making up close and Allin is a demonstrated expert on international security. They are without illusions. Their book disposes of the myths on all sides to reveal the hard dilemmas facing Washington and Jerusalem.

Richard A. Clarke, author of Against All Enemies

The best one-volume analysis of the Iran nuclear crisis in print.

Peter Beinart, author of The Icarus Syndrome

Sober, sobering, trenchant and important.

Steve Coll, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

Mandatory reading. These two deeply knowledgeable and objective authors transcend the polarized public debate, explaining why a war with Iran is a very real possibility, but also an avoidable one.

Samuel Berger, U.S. national security adviser, 1997–2001

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It is conceivable that Iran will be unable to distinguish an Israeli attack from an American one, or simply disinclined to make the distinction. The result might be attacks against U.S. installations in neighboring countries, or against the assets or populations of these countries themselves. The range of targets is wide, and falls into two groups: Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, on the one hand; Iraq and Afghanistan, on the other. They present different kinds of challenges. If Iran organizes attacks against the first group of countries, Washington will probably judge that an armed response is necessary and that, in turn, would require the permission of these countries to use their bases for attacks against Iran. This scenario, a nightmare for most of these countries whose infrasturcture is vulnerable and who are seeking to expand investment outside of the energy sector, would leave rulers little choice by to accede to U.S. requests. This would lead ineluctably to an intensified U.S. military presence, as Washington deployed more ships and aircraft to defend countries providing base access, while carrying out offensive operations against Iran's military and ultimately its leadership. This could be an open-ended proposition, whereby tit-for-tat attacks mount in frequency and intensity, as each side moves to dominate the escalatory ladder. Given the size and sophistication of U.S. naval forces, the extensive infrastructure available to them along the Arab side of the Gulf, the head start the United States and its partners have exploited to improve missle defenses, and the steps that some basing countries, like the UAE, are taking to manage the consequenses of Iranian retaliatory attacks, it seems likely that Washington and its regional allies will be the side that enjoys escalation dominance.

Iraq and Afghanistan are two neighboring battlefields where Iran could try to retaliate by creating problems for the United States. But here the risk of direct U.S.-Iranian fighting could be somewhat lower than in the GCC scenario, since these attacks would be deniable events in the context of ongoing wars. Iranian IEDs killed American Soldiers during the height of the Iraqi civil war, but the United States refrained from retaliation even though the origin of the bombs was well established. Opportunities for Iranian action in Iraq will decline as U.S. forces are drawn down, but diplomats and other Americans will still be exposed to violence. U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be vulnerable for several years at least especially since the areas under coalition control closest to Iran are in Spanish and Italian hands and would present ample opportunities for inflitration.

The conflict also could widen to encompass Lebanon, even before an Israeli attack on Iran, should Israel seize on a Hezbollah cross-border action as an Iranian casus belli or simply to keep Hezbollah too busy to retaliate for an an Israeli attack on Iran. This would not entail a surgical strike. If it happened, an invasion would involve division-sized formations advancing on a broad front, in concert with air and maritime assault, to disarm Hezbellah and push its fighters back far enough to immunize northen Israel against missile attacks.

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