It's a climactic showdown years in the making, a final battle worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. But if Israel and Iran really came to blows, which country would emerge from the ring with its gloves in the air, and which of the two regional powerhouses would be down for the count?
President Obama's recent announcement that he will vacation in Israel in the Spring has brought the Iranian question back into the headlines. Israeli Army officials told Israel's Army Radio that they believe the main purpose of Obama's visit is to "warn Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu against attacking Iran," while no less an authority than Mike Huckabee made a personal trip to Jerusalem to tell Netanyahu that Obama must draw a "line in the sand" on Iranian nuclear policy.
Of course, both parties have been training for this fight since long before Obama announced his trip. Dating back to at least the Bush administration, Israel has been searching for a chance to start a war with Iran. Occasionally, Israel's hunger for a fight jumps out of the realm of the theoretical into the practical, such as the Mossad's assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists during Obama's first term.
Iran, for its part, isn't exactly desperate to avoid adding fuel to the fire. Although it has yet to actually launch a strike on Israel, Iran is no stranger to verbal warmongering and the country's funding of Hamas and Hezbollah over the years hasn't helped to cool tensions much, either.
But none of this gives any indication as to who would prevail in a cage match, and that's a complicated question indeed.
To start to make a prediction, the first thing to consider is military spending. Last year, Israel spent about 59 billion NIS (around $16 billion) on defense, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel spent 11 billion NIS (roughly $3 billion) on preparations to attack Iran alone.
But while Israel is preparing to cut its defense budget, Iran's military spending has only been increasing, with expenditures set to rival Israel's.
Israel, however, has much deadlier gadgets, as a quick glance at the IDF blog makes clear. But Iran wins the numbers game: with a much larger population, it has about 1.2 million troops at its disposal, compared to Israel's 752,000. Globalfirepower.com, a website that ranks countries' military prowess, puts Israel at number 13 for world firepower, and Iran at 16, which leaves it just too close to call.
Then there's the nuclear question. Iran has yet to acquire a working nuclear weapon, and Chuck Hagel (in a move that was probably less than politically expedient) told an audience in 2008 that Israel is the real nuclear threat in the Middle East.
If Iran were to acquire even one nuclear weapon, however — and it's worth remembering that not everyone agrees that it's trying to — that would change the game completely. Glenn Greenwald persuasively argued in the Guardian that the real reason Israel is concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon is not because Iran might use it, but because it would act as a deterrent forestalling a preemptive strike by Israel.
Of course, if Israel were to attack Iran, the U.S. would be obligated to throw its weight behind Israel, which is probably why Obama is seemingly so concerned with preventing an Israeli attack.
Given the complexities of the situation, it's hard to say who, if anyone, would be left standing if Israel and Iran decided to enter the ring. But we can be pretty certain that both parties would end up with at least a black eye, and even spectators like the U.S. would end up catching a few blows.