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The Iran war party and the war skeptics

In one corner, we have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of the US and Israeli intelligence communities, and the Pentagon. In the other corner, we have TV pundits and politicians.

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Or you could listen to John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN who now works at the American Enterprise Institute. Bolton recently wrote that "the world's central banker of terrorism will very soon become a nuclear weapons state" the US defense and intelligence communities' protestations notwithstanding. He also says that if Iran does get a weapon, a containment strategy like the one that was effective during the cold war (when the Soviet Union had hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at the US) is doomed to failure.

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Mr. Bolton was also certain of Saddam's WMDs before the Iraq war, stating in February 2002, when he was an undersecretary for arms control, that "we are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq."

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich (another politician who just knew that Saddam had WMDs) is even more apocalyptic, warning of 300,000 Americans dead in an Iranian attack on the US. "This is not science fiction," he said.

Are we headed to war? Clearly not if men like Dempsey, Panetta, and Clapper get their way. Intelligence officials in Washington have also been leaking doubts about Israel's ability to conduct meaningful strikes on Iran, its possible dalliance with the designated Iranian terrorist group MKO in an assassination program targeting Iranian nuclear engineers, and concerns about damage to US interests if Israel carries out an attack -- all clearly designed to forestall that possibility.

Iran continues to insist that it's not interested in a nuclear weapon, only nuclear power. But it's hard to imagine that it isn't interested in developing a so-called breakout capacity, given that there is no better deterrent to invasion or other external attempts at imposing regime change than a nuclear bomb (a fact that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi must have dwelt on as he fled NATO bombing raids and his own enraged citizens last year). And many say if the day comes when Iran has an actual nuclear weapon, it may not be as dire a moment as men like Mr. Bolton project.

Scott Peterson recently wrote a cover story for us that lays out the case that the day after Iran obtains a nuclear weapon might be much like the day before. Iran would have a handful of bombs, while Israel would have hundreds and the US thousands. He quotes the eminent Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld: "Say they build one bomb – it's not good enough. They need how many – 2, 3, 5, 10, 20? And that will take them a long time, so it's all nonsense.... [Iran is] not going to commit suicide by dropping the bomb – or even threatening to drop the bomb – on us."

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