Behind Bush's hard line on Iran
After 9/11, the administration may see the US as the only one prepared to take action.
Five years with President Bush show that his administration's boldest assertions are often, in fact, statements of serious intent - whether they're about "regime change" in Iraq or educational standards for children.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Mr. Bush has laid down another such marker with his insistence that he will not allow Iran to have nuclear-weapons capability. Even if they are partly a flourish of verbal brinksmanship, his words help explain why the United States - more than other nations - perceives Tehran to be so dangerous that it is keeping the military option on the table.
One reason is that Iran and America have been avowed enemies since the 1979 hostage crisis, with Iran's clerics calling for the annihilation of the US. Yet it also seems clear that this administration - galvanized by 9/11 - sees Iran's words, too, as more than rhetoric, and sees itself as the only nation willing and able to take action.
"After 9/11, there was an awakening," says analyst Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board from 2001 to 2003. "The administration has to believe that it's possible to wait too long to deal with a problem, the contours of which could have been seen easily before. Is it safe to do that again?"
Clearly, the administration is not alone in its concerns. The prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran are sobering, and Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is in Tehran this weekend for discussions about Iran's nuclear program. One of the clearest dangers comes from the instability of the region. As perhaps the most volatile area in the world, the Middle East could thus be the most susceptible to war, raising the possibility that Iran would actually use a bomb.
Yet even if it were never used, an Iranian nuclear weapon could have a transformative effect. For one, Iran could become bolder in its terrorist activities, knowing that nations would be less likely to retaliate. Moreover, a nuclear Iran would recalibrate the balance of power in the region, perhaps pressing Saudi Arabia or Turkey toward the development of its own nuclear weapons.
"What kind of arms races do we get into in the region?" asks Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "As you start to go down the list of uncertainties, it is a little difficult not to believe that the world wouldn't be far better off if Iran didn't proliferate."
While the stability of the Middle East - with its enormous oil and gas reserves - is of vital interest to the Bush administration, the president's pronouncements point to another, perhaps deeper concern about Iran's potential behavior.
The rule of the nuclear era has been deterrence: You won't attack me with nuclear arms because then I would attack you. The concern with Iran is twofold. One is that Iran could feed a nuclear device into a terrorist network, which would obscure the weapon's origin and make it impossible for the US to respond in kind. The other is that the strain of martyrdom in Shiite Islam - and the Iran regime's extremist ideology - could render deterrence meaningless.