President Obama is meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel at the White House today, and will try to talk him out of an immediate strike on Iran's nuclear sites.
If Israel does decide to bomb Iran, however, what will it mean for the United States? According to former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, Americans should brace for a painful impact. Within a week of the first Israeli attack, says Clarke, a worst case scenario would bring soaring gas prices, terror attacks in U.S. cities, worldwide cyberwar, dead and wounded U.S. sailors, and the real possibility of broad American military involvement.
Gas Prices Could Double
According to U.S. government estimates, about 20 percent of the oil traded worldwide passes through the Persian Gulf, bordered by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. If Israel were to bomb Iran, oil prices would immediately go up. If Iran responded by attacking oil tankers going through the Persian Gulf, says Clarke, gasoline prices for U.S. consumers could double.
"You could see very quickly Iranian commandos and their small boats attacking tankers, attacking oil platforms," said Clarke. "You could see mines being laid in the Gulf."
The result, said Clarke, "would be a huge crisis in energy." President Obama would tap the U.S.'s strategic petroleum reserve, alleviating some of the price rise. The spike in prices "might not last long if the U.S. and its allies are able to take control of the Gulf," said Clarke. "But that could take more than a week and under some scenarios it could take almost a month."
Terror Threat Against Americans
If Israel were to bomb Iran, American officials fear there could be a new wave of terrorism directed by Tehran, especially if the U.S. gets pulled in to the conflict.
"If we, the United States, we're bombing Iran, then I think they'd certainly want to try to do something on our homeland because we were bombing their homeland," said Clarke.
Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have already shown a willingness to act outside their own borders, both with deadly attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina in the 1990s and the apparent attempted hits on Israeli targets in a number of countries earlier this year.
"Both have strong inroads in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, where they could strike Israeli, Jewish, and U.S. targets," said Clarke.
Israeli embassies and consulates and Jewish places of worship in the U.S. have been put on alert.
The World's First International Cyberwar
An Israeli attack on Iran would likely set off the world's first international cyber war. Before striking, Israel will try to blind the air defenses of Iran and its neighbors with cyber warfare. And the U.S. might end up using capabilities it has kept secret until now.
"The United States has a very powerful ability to cause this sort of disruption to electric power grids, communications networks," said Clarke. "It hasn't done it because it doesn't like to expose its tricks as it's afraid once it does it, people will figure out how the United States does it. But in a war with Iran, they would be willing to run that risk."
Iran would also attempt to hit back. Said Clarke, "Iran also has a cyber command, which might try to retaliate by attacking U.S infrastructure such as the power grid, trains, airlines, refineries."
U.S. Navy Casualties in the Gulf
Should the U.S. become involved in the Israeli-Iran conflict militarily, says Clarke, it will be impossible to avoid American casualties.
"The Iranians have hundreds if not thousands of small boats, armed small boats, commando small boats, that will operate in the Gulf," said Clarke. "They can get in, they can swarm a U.S. destroyer. The Iranians now also have cruise missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles."
Clarke said there is a potential for the U.S. to sustain significant damage to a few ships and lose some sailors, just as it did during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. Two U.S. ships were hit during that conflict, with a loss of nearly 40 American lives.
The U.S. Enters the War
According to Clarke, Israel can't do long-term, severe damage to Iran's nuclear infrastructure, so its chief purpose in bombing Iran would be to trigger Iranian retaliation and draw the U.S. into the war to defend Israel, and to finish off what Israel started.
If Israel bombs Iran, Clarke says the cascade of events will lead to attacks on Israeli cities. "Advisors to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak are saying that if Israel bombed Iran, the retaliation on Israel would be tolerable," said Clarke.
"But if Hezbollah in Lebanon launched thousands of extended range, improved accuracy rockets on Israel, hundreds of Israelis would die. In such a small country, that would be devastating."
The casualties, in turn, would bring the inevitable call to Washington for help.
"You will very quickly see a phone call from Prime Minister Netanyahu to the President," said Clarke, "and he will say to him, 'Only the United States, Mr. President, can find and destroy these mobile missile launchers. Only you can save the lives of Israelis who are dying as I speak in our cities."
Clarke said that message would probably spur any U.S. president into action -- but especially one who is up for reelection within months. "It's likely to get a yes answer from the president," predicts Clarke, "and bring the U.S. into the war."