What we can do, however, is measure the marginal changes in rhetoric and domestic situations to see which direction things are going. We can say that a changing tone or developing domestic situation is increasing or decreasing the chances of an imminent attack, even if it is very hard to know how close to the threshold we really are.
Take, for example, the recent development that Israel has communicated, through the highest of channels, to the US that they will not inform the US beforehand of a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. This is been widely interpreted as a worrisome development because it means that the US is shut out of such a critical decision and represents an extension of the US's declining influence over Israel in recent years. Perhaps so.
It is also worrisome, however, for an entirely different reason. Namely, that one of the biggest deterrents against an imminent strike against Iran is the American Presidential elections. This would be politically very dangerous for the Obama administration and many suggested months ago that strikes would be delayed until after the US elections and the imminent Iranian parliamentary elections. Indeed, the Obama administration has worked to actively try and cool tensions regarding Israel and Iran.
However, by making it clear that the US is in no way, shape or form related to the decision, that it is Israel's and Israel's alone, it provides more cover for an earlier Israeli attack. Obama can claim no responsibility and while it would certainly be volatile, the blame could be placed on Israel should there be, say, a wide ranging response from Hezbollah or worse. By decreasing the political risk to the US, it removes this deterrent to a strike and thus increases the marginal chance that a strike would occur.
While I find it hard to speculate on the chances of strikes or war, I can say with confidence that a very large amount of the rhetoric and positioning of US politicians and media mirrors that of the past build up to war with Iraq. The major difference is that it is opposition candidates and the media that is leading the charge opposed to the administration leading the charge and the media following. However, Iran now receives near constant media attention - almost universally negative - that has resulted in a staggering 71% of Americans being so misinformed as to believe that Iran already has a nuclear weapon. I suspect few would know that Israel has18 times the per capita military expenditure of Iran.
The rhetoric matters. I believe the belligerent, warmongering denigration of Iran in western media is bad in and of itself. Stigmatizing and demonizing a people is itself harmful, and the escalating rhetoric entrenches the conflict on both sides that leads to actual policies like the sanctions regimes that have very real effects on the lives of many ordinary Iranians. These effects remain real even if the motivations for the rhetoric are largely domestic. To whatever extent it provides political cover that enables an actual war, much as similar coverage did for Iraq, this is worse still.
It is difficult to know whether the US or Israel actively wants the public to know as we are aware of this high level meeting by way of an anonymous official. Of course, both administrations often hide behind anonyminity as a means to convey information to the media and the public without direct culpability, so the fact that it was anonymous in no way implies one side or both did not actively want the information about this avaliable. It is further true that such high level meetings often are very vague and closed doors with the public having little information except for exactly what they want to release.
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