AUGUST is often a dangerous month. It suddenly feels as though sabres are not just for rattling; and the law of unintended consequences has an unfortunate habit of kicking in.
The prospect of an impending violent clash between Iran and Israel over the former's nuclear weapons programme risks an all-out regional conflagration. The recent utterances from representatives of the Israeli government about the time for dialogue and diplomacy rapidly expiring, about the window for negotiation getting smaller and smaller are no doubt intended to put pressure on the US government. (The Israelis are nothing if not brutally realistic and have long given up on pressuring the Iranian government.)
But the Israeli home front defence minister's references to expectations of a short 30-day war between Iran and Israel with "only 500 dead Israelis" risks creating a dynamic and heightening the rhetoric to the point where it becomes self-fulfilling.
The one lesson we can learn from war is that the consequences are almost inevitably unpredictable and that the best assessments and plans rarely survive the first contact with the enemy. The assessment that the war will last just 30 days has uncomfortable echoes of the First World War where all the combatants expected it to be over by Christmas 1914. And the publication on the internet of Israel's alleged battle plans -- including a massive cyber attack, a barrage of ballistic missiles on nuclear facilities, command and control centres, and the targeting of senior military and scientific figures -- creates a deeply worrying quasi inevitability, the risk of miscalculations and missed signals again redolent of 1914 and the inflexibility of railway timetables for mobilisation.
The US Defence Secretary speaks of Israel as not having yet made up its mind whether to attack, and the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has volunteered that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would delay but not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capability. But he balanced his comment by accusing Iran of arming and training a pro-Assad regime militia. One of the undoubted consequences of any Israeli attack on Iran would be an increase in Iranian-sponsored terrorism through its surrogates, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both of whom are also capable of shelling Israeli civilian centres. The US would also inevitably be targeted which is perhaps a crucial factor in President Barack Obama's determination to try to restrain the Israelis while giving the Iranians the impression that all options, including the military one, remain on the table.
For Obama, the timing could hardly be worse. His chosen battlefield with Mitt Romney is the domestic one where an upturn in the US economic indicators could provide Obama with the clear blue water he hopes to put between himself and Romney. But an Israeli attack on Iran between now and election day would place Obama in a hideously difficult position.
Romney will uncritically side with Benjamin Netanyahu if the Israeli PM decides to go to war. This would force Obama to take a far less restraining position vis a vis Israel. He needs to avoid being completely outflanked and voted out by a US public opinion, which has largely been shielded from appreciation of the full consequences for the Middle East and the US of what would in terms of international law be an unprovoked and thus illegal act.
Iran, meanwhile, despite being detested by its Sunni neighbours, particularly the Saudis and the Gulf states, will in the event of an Israeli attack be assured of overwhelming support from the Islamic world and the 120-state Non-Aligned Movement, an organisation of the countries of the developing world which largely lost its direction and purpose with the ending of the Cold War but which will shortly be holding a summit meeting in Tehran, while Iran prepares to take on its leadership for the next three years. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will hugely enjoy exploiting the forum to proclaim his own toxic mix of anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric.
Internally, an attack by Israel would at best only delay Iranian moves towards nuclear weapon capability. It might well prompt them to redouble their efforts. An attack would also unite the people behind an otherwise deeply unpopular regime. Its domestic opponents are still bleeding from the election fraud of two years ago and the brutal crackdown against internal dissenters but they will unite with the ayatollahs against external aggression.
To cause maximum regional chaos, the Iranians might well attempt to close the strategically crucial Strait of Hormuz through which 40 per cent of the world's seaborne oil supplies flows. The price of oil would soar and the pressure on a US president to intervene would be intense. But while it might be tempting to let slip the dogs of war, the downside is so considerable that Obama must show real leadership and attempt to give sanctions against the regime more time to bite and diplomacy through more sustained negotiation a further chance.
The current round of negotiations between the permanent members of the Security Council and Iran may have collapsed but it is surely time for Iran and the US to engage in a serious dialogue. The 30-year dialogue of the deaf needs to come to an end. The difficulty comes, as Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has remarked, in reaching rapprochement with a regime which needs you as an adversary for its own ideological legitimacy. Now that will take real diplomacy.
Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia