Patrick Cockburn: Israel's threats of war are more potent than war itself

World View: Warnings of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities are probably only bluff, but thanks to the US and widespread gullibility, they are proving effective

The air is full of dire warnings of an impending Israeli attack on Iran. Prophets of doom point fearfully to the meeting tomorrow in the White House between President Barack Obama and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as crucial in making the decisions that will lead to peace or war.

Many Israeli and Western commentators adopt a tone so portentous about this meeting that parody is difficult. For instance, Ari Shavit writes in Haaretz that "next Monday... each will see the abyss in the other's pupils". Mr Shavit does not reveal what lies at the bottom of this ocular cavity, but he sternly warns the American and Israeli leaders that if they don't work together "they will bring disasters on their nations".

Wars in the Middle East commonly come as a surprise and are aimed at catching the enemy napping or, at least, with little preliminary warning. This was true of the Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, and even Nato's air assault on Muammar Gaddafi's tanks as they advanced on Benghazi a year ago. Where the build-up has been slow, as in America's wars with Iraq in 1991 and 2003, it is because the US was certain of victory.

The highly publicised impending Israeli air strikes on Iran are different from these previous conflicts in several respects. First, they are extremely unlikely to achieve their declared aim, which is permanently to end Iranian capacity to build a nuclear bomb. A bevy of former Israeli intelligence and army chiefs, along with senior serving American officials, say this cannot be done. An Israeli attack is, if anything, likely to push Iran into building a nuclear device, a decision that, it is generally admitted on all sides, it has not yet made.

Second, the Israeli assault will not only come as no surprise, but it will be one of the most heavily publicised events in the world in recent years. Promoters of Hollywood blockbusters must look with envy at the pre-publicity for this war. Israel's Minister of Defence, Ehud Barak, makes bloodcurdling threats. The US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, even put a date on the attack, saying to journalists that there is a "strong likelihood" of an Israeli air assault this spring. The New York Times reverently quotes Israeli officials saying Israel might attack Iran without telling the US. The Hollywood analogy is apt: there is something very stagy about these oft-repeated threats, though the international media happily take them at face value.

There is a persistent misjudgement that mars much of the commentary on the relations between Israel, Iran and the US. This is to do with the size and the military capacity of the protagonists.

Taking its threats at face value, Israel is saying that it will fly its planes to Iran and destroy widely dispersed and heavily protected Iranian nuclear facilities. But this is the same air force that in 1996 and 2006 failed to defeat a few thousand Hezbollah guerrillas dug into bunkers a few miles from Israel's northern border. Two years later, the bombardment of tiny undefended Gaza killed some 1,300 civilians, but failed to eliminate the Hamas leadership.

Israel is more influential when threatening war than when actually fighting one. The last time Israel conclusively won a war was in 1973, and only after serious setbacks. Its prolonged incursion into Lebanon brought only humiliation and failure.

Israeli leaders do very little militarily with which the US seriously disapproves. It is Israel's relationship with the US, not Iran, that is crucial. Israelis sense this and do not vote for leaders who get on permanently bad terms with Washington, as happened to Netanyahu to his cost in the election of 1999. Israeli attitudes are reflected in a poll, conducted for the Brookings Institution and released last week, which shows that only 19 per cent of Israelis favour a unilateral strike on Iran without US support. This figure goes up to 42 per cent if an Israeli strike does have American backing. A third of Israelis is against a strike in any circumstances.

All these are reasons why Israel's threats of imminent war against Iran are most likely high-quality bluff. Yet it is a bluff that has, so far, proved successful in isolating Iran politically and economically. Israeli leaders in their hearts may secretly not feel as threatened by an Iranian bomb as they claim. In any case, the US National Intelligence Estimate (the collective opinion of its intelligence agencies) confirms Iran has not taken a decision to build a nuclear weapon, and has not had a programme to do so since 2003. Even then, one agency concludes, the Iranians were only doing so in case Saddam built a nuclear bomb. If Iran does succeed in building nuclear devices, it will be deterred from using them by the far greater arsenals of Israel and the US. Deterrence works – witness the US-Soviet Union standoff during the Cold War.

Of course, Israel would prefer Iran to be without nuclear weapons, but they scarcely pose the threat to Israel that Netanyahu and Barak pretend. But their repeated threats to strike Iran before it strikes Israel have proved highly successful in persuading Europe, and much of the rest of the world, to join the US in imposing economic sanctions. They would scarcely have done this without having been persuaded that the alternative was a new war in the Gulf.

The sanctions are effective: Iranian oil exports are being crippled, international trade links are being paralysed, domestic prices are rising swiftly and, in the long term, support for the authorities in Iran is being sapped.

This is a further reason for suspecting that threats of war are overblown. The US and Israel may publicly differ on how to respond to Iran's nuclear programme, but they are at one in wanting to change the regime in Tehran. Here they are making more progress than seemed likely a year ago. Syria, Iran's main Middle Eastern ally, is fighting for its life and, in the long term, is unlikely to survive. The number of people and parties boycotting the Iranian parliamentary election last Friday shows a divided, increasingly unpopular Iranian regime. Israel's threats of war are turning out to be more potent than war itself.