The war drums on Iran continue to beat onward. Hawkish editorials and opinion pieces adopt the style and content of articles from a decade ago, in which a Middle Eastern country run by a "madman" was on the brink of obtaining weapons of mass destruction – weapons that would almost certainly be used to threaten the security of the world.
The older articles were about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein almost certainly had (except he didn't). The current crop are about Iran. Front and center is an op-ed by Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal yesterday titled "The mortal threat from Iran." He writes that the "primitive religious fanatics" who rule Iran don't think rationally about their own nation's interests, and that, absent a US attack soon, "Iran will get nuclear weapons, which in its eyes are an existential necessity."
Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute in California, even echoes Condoleezza Rice's January 2003 warning that the smoking gun of an Iraqi nuclear program could be a "mushroom cloud." He writes: "We cannot dismiss the possibility of Iranian nuclear charges of 500 pounds or less ending up in Manhattan or on Pennsylvania Avenue."
To be sure, Iraq and Iran are not the same; Iran is indeed enriching uranium, a key component of a nuclear weapon. But the fear-mongering sounds the same. What today's arguments about Iran ignore, however – much as the arguments in favor of the Iraq war ignored – was the position of the US intelligence community that Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon. The US position appears to be that Iran is seeking the ability to build a weapon, without actually taking that final step.
Two weekends ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability and that's what concerns us and our red line to Iran is: Do not develop a nuclear weapon."
And it's not just the US assessment. Israel's liberal newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that "Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to the intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to [visiting] Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff." Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak poured cold water on speculation that his country is planning a unilateral attack against Iran. "This entire thing is very far off. I don’t want to provide estimates [but] it’s certainly not urgent," he said.
To be sure, there are concerns. US, European, and Israeli officials suspect that Iran is concealing much of its nuclear work, which it insists is for peaceful purposes only, and that weapons-related work that they don't know about could be taking place. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, told the Financial Times' German edition yesterday: "What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons," according to a Reuters translation.
But the flow of recent statements has been mostly in the opposite direction. Concern? Yes. Redoubled efforts to use sanctions to force more light onto Iran's nuclear activities? Yes, absolutely. Hair-on-fire panic? No.
The tone from private-sector analysts is something else, however. One of the latest examples is from Jamie M. Fly and Gary Schmitt, writing in Foreign Affairs. They even quote former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's line about "known unknowns," (that is, things that Saddam Hussein might be hiding) being a cause to consider going to war with Iraq in February 2002.
They write that in the case of Iran, the "known unknowns" are "troubling," and go on to outline a case for a broad US war to bring down the Islamic Republic. Having asserted that US airstrikes targeting Iran's nuclear sites would probably fail in ending the program, they write: "Given the likely fallout from even a limited military strike, the question the United States should ask itself is, Why not take the next step? After all, Iran's nuclear program is a symptom of a larger illness – the revolutionary fundamentalist regime in Tehran."
They then suggest that a broad US air campaign against Iran would be popular with Iranians. "It is sometimes said that a strike would lead the population to rally around the regime. In fact, given the unpopularity of the government, it seems more likely that the population would see the regime's inability to forestall the attacks as evidence that the emperor has no clothes and is leading the country into needlessly desperate straits. If anything, Iranian nationalism and pride would stoke even more anger at the current regime."
That flies in the face of Iranian history and what most Iranians – including members of the Green Movement – say about how the population would respond to war. While there is clearly great discontent with the regime, and many millions of Iranians would like to throw off clerical rule, the history of Iran suggests that war would probably result in an uptick in support for the regime, confronted as it would be by a hostile foreign power. When Saddam Hussein gambled that Iran was weak in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and went to war, the result was a rallying of support for the fledgling Iranian regime and a ruinous war that helped the country's new theocrats consolidate their power.
For now, the war talk looks set to go on. But with Iranian parliamentary elections scheduled for March – a chance for the opposition to perhaps show its political strength, or another occasion for Iran's rulers to fix the results, as happened in the 2009 presidential reelection – the chances of action soon are vanishingly slim. Diplomats and leaders, from President Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will sit back awhile and watch to see if sanctions are working, if the regime will start to unravel from within, well aware that wars are much easier to start than to get out of.