Expert says 30 percent chance of war with Iran before January

CBS News-- "I think the likelihood of war sometime before January 1st is probably around 30 percent," says top foreign policy expert Jon Alterman on the situation on Iran. "There are people who say, 'Wow only 30 percent,' other people say, 'Wow, 30 percent, that's real.' It feels to me there are several things that could happen... I sense both on the Israeli side and the American side that you can't talk about this forever. It makes you lose your credibility. I think we're probably in the 20 to 30 percent range," said Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies to Bob Schieffer in an interview for Face to Face.

The situation with Iran - played between Israel, the U.S., and the regime in Tehran, does not have a simple solution. At the heart of it, he says, is how far is Iran willing to go with its nuclear ambitions? "How long they want to preserve having an option, how that's all going to work, I think is a huge mystery. It seems to me there are three parties here who don't really understand precisely the actions of the other two. I don't think the Israelis really have a good sense of internal Iranian decision-making, and I don't think they have a great sense of the Obama administration," he said. "And when you have three parties, possibly poised on the brink of war, and no one party understands the other two. It's a very dangerous situation to be in, that's the situation we're in right now," he added.

Alterman, the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program at CSIS, recently returned from a trip to Russia, a country that's played thorn in the side of U.S. interests recently--standing in the way of United Nations security resolutions with regards to Iran, and standing by the Assad regime in Syria, a long-time ally.

But, Alterman says the gap isn't that far apart among the two countries' goals. "It's not clear to me that we actually strategically have that many differences with the Russians. I think they are worried about the same things we're worried about in Syria which is that al Qaeda has a foothold. You break into chaos, civil war, the jihadis come in from all over the middle east, they go out into Chechnya, they go out into the gulf. I think we all have the same worst case scenario for Syria," he said. But he said the difference may be over timing. "What some people say is that we disagree with the Russians on whether making a deal now makes things better or worse. The American conception is the longer this goes on, the more likely you have terrorism coming out of Syria. The Russian view being the faster you have a transition when nothing's ready, the more likely you have terrorism coming out of Syria," he added.

Alterman says though that the difference in timing isn't something that can be settled easily with the Russian government. "They don't want anything to happen really quickly. I think they don't want us to win. They don't want our friends to sort of run rampant. I think they would like some sort of brokered deal where they can protect their interests. They have a naval base in Tartus. They don't want to feel totally pushed out. they don't want to look like they're abandoning an ally, because they've had a long relationship with Syrians dating back to the Cold War. But are they willing to cut him loose? They seem to be willing to cut him loose but they don't want to be the ones to do the cutting. What they seem to be waiting for, in my judgment, is they're waiting for the situation to take care of itself and then they'll come in and they'll help try to impose some order on it. I think from a U.S. perspective there's an awful lot of blood between now and the situation taking care of itself. And the more blood you have the more likely you are to have just a lot of extremism and the problem gets harder to solve, not easier."

The same debate over when to take action holds true with the Iran situation, too. He explained,"I don't think the Russians want a nuclear Iran. But again there's a question of pacing. There's a question of how tough we should be on sanctions. I think the Russians don't have identical views, but I hear a lot of frustration among Russians with Iranian government behavior. Where they differ is they think the U.S. strategy to get the Iranians to change their behavior isn't going to work."

Finally, Schieffer asked Alterman about the situation in Egypt where the military has been reasserting its power even as elections have produced a new government. Alterman says the Egyptian government is in the middle of a long game, with no end on the horizon. "I think the real question for the military, which has tried to stop the consequences of Democratic elections which have largely seemed to favor the Muslim Brotherhood, the question is can you ever get that toothpaste back in the tube--- I think the military is going to have a very hard time preserving its legitimacy. I think ultimately it's going to have to make a deal with precisely the Democratic politicians that they're trying to shove aside. Partly for political reasons, partly for economic ones."

While the political situation there is being settled, Alterman says Egypt is still a crucial ally for the United States. "Egypt, being on the right side in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been incredibly important to both the Israeli security and to both the U.S. regional security. And there's a way in which Egypt is the center of gravity for the whole Arab world... So if you care about the middle east, and because of our energy use and the energy use of our allies, we're going to care about the middle east for a long time, you have to care about Egypt."

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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.