Her Majesty’s Government has begun to discuss its options in the event of an Israel/Iran war in semi-public view. In a past life, I’ve seen this situation happen alot. The UK (and, more to the point, the USA) is caught in the “best friend of the bad drunk” paradox.* It is (unfortunately) a common occurance in the UK, where people like to drink, and some of them like to start fights after doing so. One key to being a bar manager is not only to figure out the people likely to start fights (preferably before they do so) but also to figure out who their friends are, as they are infinitely better at stopping the aformentioned bad-drunks from kicking off than any authority figure (yourself, security), random strangers, or, for that matter, the people that they are considering fighting.
The best friend of the bad drunk paradox is this: Your mate is your mate, but also a bit of an arsehole. If he kicks off, you will probably have to wade in and stop him from getting hurt (drunk people tend not to fight that well, or make the best choices of whom to fight), which could result in you getting hurt. If you don’t wade in, he’ll get hurt, and your friendship will take a big dent (“Why didn’t you back me up?” etc). Much as you’d like to, you can’t simply pull him off somebody else, as the person that he’s started on sees you as his friend, and not an independent arbiter, or somebody that just wants to drink in peace without stopping a bar fight. In short, you’re on your friend’s side, whether you like it or not. Either way, you kinda lose. More to the point, either way, your friend is probably going to start the fight anyway, since bad drunks tend to assume their friends will help them out.
International relations isn’t a bar fight, but I’ve seen enough bar fights to know that when a fight breaks out, half-in-half-out doesn’t quite cut it between friends. Nor does only allowing leased territory to aid the flattening of military targets in Iran in any way abrogate responsibility on the UK’s behalf for what comes after the first Israeli strike. If Israel strikes Iran, America will step in, and then the question becomes the degree to which we’re in on it.
Let’s be clear here: an Israeli strike on Iran isn’t in the UK’s national interest. I can see no possible scenario in which a major military conflict in the middle east is the best available (or least-worse) option. Even if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Israel benefits from American extended deterrence. If Iran were to even attempt to wipe Israel off the map with such weapons, America would probably turn sizeable sections of the country into radioactive glass. For all the speeches and posturing, such a scenario is highly unlikely. So with that in mind, let’s think of the UK’s best option.
Returning to the best friend paradox, the best option is saying “If you do this, you’re on your own” prior to the fists flying. It’s not a nice thing to say to a good friend, but at the same time, it is the most likely thing to stop a potential bar fight in its tracks. As it stands, the government seems to be intent on exploring its options. That the UK has a choice is pretty much illusory. If Israel fights, America will probably follow. In terms of strategic calculus, the UK is probably an afterthought to Israeli planners as long as they can rely on America. Unless the UK clearly states that it will have no part in what follows, we won’t have the choice of whether or not we get dragged into the conflict. That’s what happens when you are friends with people that are prone to starting fights.
*I can see that tangentially referring to Israel as a “bad drunk” might strike some as offensive. Israel’s choice to go to war is separate from the UK’s, and from a certain Israeli perspective, I can see that military action could be an entirely rational and necessary choice. But Israel isn’t the UK, nor, for that matter is it the USA. Each state has a different choice, and at the moment, the best parallel I can draw for the UK is being stuck in the “best friend…” paradox. For the record, I consider Israel neither “bad” nor “drunk”, but that there are marked parallels between the UK’s choices and courses of action as described above.