The war of words against Iran grew scorching this week when President Bush declared that “avoiding World War III” requires preventing that country from developing nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration continues to insist that it seeks a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis -- and the White House says the president didn’t mean to lay out a case for war. Yet senior U.S. officials increasingly trumpet their frustration with a regime that, nearly 30 years after the Islamic revolution, has grown richer, more willing to challenge the United States and interested in filling the power vacuum created by the U.S. overthrow of its longtime nemesis, Saddam Hussein. To the mounting evidence that Iran is accelerating its nuclear weapons research under cover of a civilian energy program has been added credible U.S. allegations that Iran is arming and aiding Shiite insurgents who are attacking U.S. military forces in Iraq, as well as arming terrorists in Lebanon and Afghanistan. The resulting angry brew is being heated and stirred by a coordinated public campaign by U.S. neoconservatives favoring military action against Tehran.
Despite the very real causes for U.S. complaint, the escalation of American threats against Iran is unwise. It is grossly premature. It is dangerous, as it greatly increases the likelihood of accidental escalation into a preventable war. It is alarmingly ill-timed, as an isolated United States wages simultaneous ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both conflicts are going badly. And it is diplomatically counterproductive. Congress and U.S. opinion leaders should slam on the brakes -- if they can.
Under ordinary circumstances, the U.S. commander in chief shouldn’t have to publicly rule out the option of using military force if necessary. Ordinarily, presidents should be able to bluff or threaten in order to win concessions from a foreign adversary. But these are not ordinary times, and the Bush administration’s judgment about what is “necessary” to protect U.S. national security has been shown to be extraordinarily poor.
Military threats are a last resort and should only be made by nations prepared to make good on them. But the United States is militarily unready and politically unwilling to open a third front against Iran -- nor should it, because Iran poses no imminent threat. In February, Bush’s own director of National Intelligence, Adm. Mike McConnell, and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, told Congress that the earliest Iran could develop a nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile with which to deliver it would be 2015.
So why rattle the sabers now, at a moment of U.S. military weakness? In 1969, with the Vietnam War going badly, President Nixon devised a plan to spook the Soviets and the North Vietnamese into making concessions by making them think that he was just crazy enough to use nuclear weapons. Nixon called it the “madman theory.” There is speculation that the Bush administration could be trying out its version of the madman gambit by advertising Vice President Dick Cheney’s alleged desire to bomb Iranian nuclear sites and Revolutionary Guard targets, in hopes of scaring Tehran into submission. The problem with the madman act, however, is that it presumes that the Iranians will react sensibly. But who wants to stake U.S. foreign policy on the wisdom of Iran’s mullahs and its titular head, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a paranoid who can beat us at the madman game any day of his choosing? He has already threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
The evidence suggests that Bush’s bluster is backfiring, causing Iran to escalate its anti-American activities instead of backing off. As the U.S. has sent battleships and Patriot missiles to Iran’s neighborhood, Tehran has rebuffed U.S. overtures for talks on Iraq, captured British sailors in international waters, jailed Iranian American academics, egged on Shiite militias in Iraq, told the United Nations that nuclear inspections are no longer necessary and stepped up its own hostile rhetoric. This week, Iran signaled its interest in striking an alliance with President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia that is squarely aimed at countering U.S. influence in the Middle East. Tehran appears to have concluded that the Bush administration is so implacably hostile that negotiations are futile, and instead it is trying to deter a U.S. attack by showing how fiercely it can retaliate.
In the post-Iraq war era, Bush’s threats make other nations leery of joining the U.S. in imposing tougher economic sanctions against Iran. Those who opposed the invasion of Iraq fear U.N. resolutions against Iran might later be unilaterally interpreted by the United States as justification for military action. And then there is the momentum problem. Contingency planning for a possible conflict makes that conflict less unthinkable, and therefore more likely -- especially as U.S. forces battle Iranian-backed Shiites in Iraq.
Finally, Bush should be discouraged from threatening Iran -- either directly or via leaks about Cheney’s alleged enthusiasm for bombing -- because Americans cannot be sure that he is just bluffing. Should a future U.S. president find it necessary to consider military action against Iran, he or she would need the support of Congress, the military, the American people and many other nations. Bush can muster none of the above. He should stick to diplomacy.