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Danger signs on Iran Escalating administration rhetoric has a disturbingly familiar sound

President Bush is ready, willing and eager to prevent the outbreak of World War III. He said as much the other day in one of his many warnings about the intolerable possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Unhappily, an ever-larger portion of the world is seriously, and understandably, concerned that the president lacks both the vision and the judgment to fulfill his promise. If anything, the worrisome scenario goes, it might be not Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but America's president who precipitates the next ruinous conflict.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, no doubt speaks for many when he urges the American administration to tone down its bellicose rhetoric in favor of more diplomacy, more pressure and, most of all, more patience.

Patience does not mean inactivity. It means recognizing that even if Iran is working on nuclear weapons, something that the agency may never be able to prove or disprove, Iran won't be ready to use them for several years. It means it will be an issue requiring constant attention, from this president and the next.

But because such mature behavior is not as politically sexy as bombing faraway countries full of people with funny names, Bush, Vice President Cheney and most of the Republican candidates for president insist on making more and more unhelpful remarks about how they will use force toremove Iran's nuclear capability.

What's really frightening the civilized minds of the world at least as much as Iranian nukes is the all-too-familiar sounding code words flowing from the White House these days, about weapons of mass destruction and the need to strike before we are struck. Only this time we would risk much more than allowing a relative few men and women at arms to bear the whole burden of a prolonged conflict.

Any pre-emptive strike at Iran risks retaliation on many fronts, directly against our forces in Iraq and, perhaps, against Israel, as well as via allied and proxy terrorist networks that, according to the administration's own warnings, are deployed over a large area of the globe and are ready to kill and be killed on a moment's notice.

To be fair, there just might be some statecraft at work here. The administration's political calculus may be that ratcheting up the rhetoric will empower the moderates within Iran who already think Ahmadinejad is doing a bad job.

But the danger is that it could also trigger a crackdown on any internal dissent against the Iranian government, squelching the few people who would not rally to their regime's defense in the wake of any attack. The creation of a nuclear-armed Castro astride the Middle East would hardly be something that anyone would call a military or a diplomatic success.

Keep up the pressure. Keep working the back channels and the choke-points. Lean on Russia and China. Develop sources of energy that aren't dependent on either conquering or sucking up to Middle Eastern regimes.

But don't get trigger-happy.

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