Those two answers cracked open the door to the two big questions that need asking about Iran. First, what might be the full price and unintended consequences of a U.S. attack? For starters, as Biden suggested, radicalizing still more of the Islamic world to an extent that’s much more troublesome than Iran’s unpleasantness.
And second, if diplomacy fails, could the U.S. live with a nuclearized Iran? As far as I can tell, no plausible 44th president has seriously discussed this question—the Republicans, apparently, because they consider it axiomatic that the answer is no, and the Democrats because they politically don’t dare say the answer may be yes.
“It is not a good answer to say, ‘Well, we did containment with the Soviets and the Chinese,’ ” Giuliani argues. For the USSR and China, “there was a residual self-interest, or you might even call it a residual rationality, that said, ‘We don’t want to die.’ ”
This is almost certainly a false view of the Iranian régime, and a dangerous one. And do we trust the geopolitical instincts of a permanently enraged former mayor of New York, or, say, those of the man who until last spring commanded the U.S. military from Pakistan through the whole Middle East? “There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran,” General John Abizaid explained recently. “I believe that the United States … can contain Iran. I believe nuclear deterrence will work with the Iranians. I mean, Iran is not a suicide nation.”
So far most Americans, bless them, aren’t frightened out of their minds. According to the latest CNN poll, 77 percent of people believe that Tehran is indeed developing nuclear weapons, but 68 percent oppose U.S. military action against Iran. And this time there is no cast of liberal hawks beating the drums for war. Kenneth Pollack, whose 2002 book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, was hugely influential, wants diplomatic outreach to Iran. Bob Kerrey and Slate’s Jacob Weisberg supported the invasion in 2003, but they’re in no way onboard for Iran. “Iran is a deterrable threat,” the former U.S. senator told me last week. “We are blowing it out of perspective” with “crazy rhetoric.” And Weisberg reckons “there are almost no circumstances I can envision under which I would support American military action to preempt Iran becoming a nuclear power. I’d like to think I’d hold the same view if I hadn’t made the mistake of supporting the invasion of Iraq.”
But would he? Would any of us? The shadow of Iraq makes it almost impossible to see Iran clearly. Nor is it just that we’ve been chastened by the present debacle—it’s also changed the facts on the ground: If we hadn’t bungled Iraq, the costs of attacking Iran wouldn’t now look so prohibitive.
And then there’s the almost unspeakably complicated issue of where U.S. national interests and Israeli national interests diverge. Maybe we could cope with a nuclear-armed Iran, but Israel’s bet on deterrence would be orders of magnitude bigger than ours—and one that it will undoubtedly be unprepared to make. “The problem the next president is most likely to face,” Weisberg says, “is how to prevent a preemptive Israeli strike [on Iran’s nuclear facilities] from turning into a wider Iranian-Israeli or Israeli-Muslim conflict.”
Before we get there, the first giant domino to fall one way or the other will be ElBaradei’s U.N. report card, in two weeks. If he says Iran has been sufficiently cooperative and transparent, the forces of reason and prudence can redouble their case for a serious diplomatic offensive, and educate Americans about relevant recent history.
They can explain that the Iranian régime is not a one-nutty-man dictatorship—that it comprises factions which exist in a perpetual, quasi-democratic competition. They can point out that Ahmadinejad’s term ends in 2009, and that he may now be as unpopular in Iran as Bush is in the U.S. A majority of the Iranian Parliament has signed an open letter criticizing him.
They can say all of that. But if ElBaradei—an Egyptian who’s bent over backward to save the Iranians from themselves—tells the world that the Iranians are being opaque or deceptive about their nuclear programs, all those hopeful, illuminating facts will suddenly be much less reassuring. And it won’t be so easy to just keep saying that it’s George Bush crying wolf again.