The prospect of an attack by the United States against Iran has triggered a flurry of military activity around the Middle East as Tehran mobilizes its allies to prepare a defense. In a region where suspicion dominates and trust is rare, politicians and analysts warn, mounting tensions between the US and Iran could spark a war by accident.
"The situation is such that you can't rule out an unplanned development," says Zvi Shtauber, director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel. "Since we're living in an era where there is no negotiation, it looks like everything is open.... things are so fragile that you could have an accidental development."
Those concerns were voiced this week by Amos Yadlin, Israel's chief of military intelligence, who told the government that Lebanese Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran are making defensive preparations in expectation of war. "We are closely monitoring these preparations because [Iran, Syria and Hizbullah] could misinterpret various moves in the region," Mr. Yadlin was quoted by the Israeli Haaretz daily as saying. Israeli media reported that Israel asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to relay to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during her visit to Damascus Wednesday a message of reassurance that Israel has no intention of attacking.
Still, the Middle East has a grim history of bellicose rhetoric and military gestures causing unintended consequences. A fatal chain of misinterpreted muscle-flexing moves by Egypt and Israel provoked the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, a conflict that redrew the geostrategic map of the Middle East, and the repercussions of which continue to be felt today.
More recently, Hizbullah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12 last year sparked a 34-day war that cost Lebanon more than 1,000 lives and damage estimated at $3.6 billion. Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah subsequently all but admitted that the party's leadership had misread Israel's response to the abduction of the two soldiers.
"If any of us had a 1 percent doubt that Israel was going to reply in this savage manner, we wouldn't have captured those soldiers," he said in a television interview.
President George W. Bush has vowed to resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions by the time he leaves office in early 2009.
Although the White House says it is pursuing diplomacy to achieve its goal, it refuses to rule out the military option. The recent disappearance of a senior Iranian general, the arrests of Iranian diplomats in Iraq, and the deployment of US naval battle groups in the Persian Gulf have raised expectations in the region that a US attack on Iran may be imminent.
"US threats against Iran are no longer regarded by the Iranians and Syrians as just saber-rattling, and it's only natural that they prepare themselves," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.
Hizbullah officials and fighters say that the party has launched an intensified training program with new recruits pushed through month-long courses in camps scattered along the flanks of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Veteran fighters receive refresher courses and can volunteer for 45-day programs to join special-forces units.
"There is a high level of recruitment. The rearmament is happening because there will be a war with Syria. The Israelis cannot accept the insult of the July war," says Mohammed, a Hizbullah activist in Beirut, referring to last summer's conflict.
Analysts suspect, however, that Israel will bide its time to absorb and apply the lessons learned from last summer's conflict before contemplating a second round with its Lebanese foe.
Nawaf Mussawi, Hizbullah's foreign affairs adviser, says he doubts that Israel's government is strong enough domestically to persuade the public to support a second major war against Lebanon. But, he adds, Hizbullah "is ready for all eventualities."
"What we expect, or don't expect, from Israel has nothing to do with our preparations. In any situation, we are prepared," Mr. Mussawi says.
Iran's regionwide defensive preparations against a potential US attack, ironically, have been aided by Washington's policy of politically isolating Syria since 2003 and the Hamas-led Palestinian government since last year.
Ignored by the US and Europe, Syria and Hamas turned to Iran. In June 2006, Syria and Iran signed a mutual defense pact and last month inked a protocol on deepening bilateral military cooperation.
"There is a belief very much in Syria and certainly with Hizbullah that, should the Americans attack Iran, then Israel will get involved in a preemptive operation here," says Timur Goksel, a Beirut-based security-affairs analyst.
A Lebanese intelligence source says that the Syrian Army is being taught some of the guerrilla-style tactics devised by Hizbullah in Lebanon. "The Iranians are trying to convince Syria that if they use the same tactics as Hizbullah and if they can last 20 to 30 days in a war with Israel before a cease-fire, then [the public perception will be that] they will have won and Israel will have lost," the source says.
Iran also took advantage of the refusal by Israel and the US to deal with the Hamas government in the Palestinian territories, which was elected in January 2006. Tehran stepped into the gap, pledging Hamas $150 million to compensate for the freeze on Western development aid.
Israel claims that dozens of Hamas militants have traveled to Iran for training and that Iranian-supplied weapons are being smuggled via tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. "Hamas is doing all its best to arm itself. The attempt to stop it is like putting a door in the middle of the desert," Dr. Shtauber says, commenting on an Egyptian promise this week to stave the flow of weapons. "You can just go around it."
• Ilene R. Prusher contributed to this report from Israel.