Unfortunately, though, reality is not what guides the Bush administration. It is still driven by the impulses that led to the Iraq invasion. This means that the world may wake up any morning between now and Jan. 20 to news that U.S. missiles are falling on Iran. Ominously, Adm. William J. Fallon, who had strongly opposed the idea of attacking Iran, announced his early retirement yesterday.
The fact that most Americans seem to believe the threat of such an attack has receded may actually make it more possible. Officials in Washington could easily take the lack of sustained public and political protest as a sign that citizens don’t really care whether the U.S. launches this new war.
Perversely, the recent National Intelligence Estimate concluding that there is no active nuclear weapons program in Iran could have the same effect. Before it was issued, there seemed at least a chance that European and other powers would join the United States in imposing new economic sanctions on Iran. Now they are unlikely to do so. With sanctions off the table, some in Washington may conclude that military action is the only remaining option.
Utopians who believe that bombing Iran would serve the cause of peace and democracy in the Middle East have not stopped their campaign. Norman Podhoretz, one of the godfathers of the neoconservative movement, has just published a lengthy article, "Stopping Iran : Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands." It casts doubt on the recent intelligence estimate and argues for an attack "in 2008, when Iran can still be stopped from getting the bomb and millions of lives can be saved."
Six years ago, President Bush warned Iran that he would "not wait on events while dangers gather" and "not stand by as peril draws closer and closer." In December, after the intelligence estimate was released, he asserted that "if Iran shows up with a nuclear weapon at some point in time, the world is going to say, ’What happened to [the Americans] in 2007 ? How come they couldn’t see the impending danger ?’"
In his recent State of the Union address, Mr. Bush denounced Iran for "funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing Hamas’ efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land." Then he warned, "Know this : America will confront those who threaten our troops."
Many Americans and people around the world will be shocked if President Bush orders an attack on Iran. He would be perfectly justified in telling them that their shock was hard to understand, since he had repeatedly made his intention clear.
It is not hard to imagine the reasoning that might lead White House officials to conclude the U.S. must attack Iran. "We had to deal with 9/11 because wimpy Bill Clinton didn’t crush the threat before it materialized," they would tell themselves. "We can’t leave this problem to the next president. Let’s make the tough decision we know is right."
Thirty-five years ago, Americans faced a hostile nuclear power whose government the U.S. had long refused to recognize : China. President Richard M. Nixon was able to imagine a new relationship with China, one in which the two countries would compete or cooperate peacefully. President Bush has proved incapable of making a similar leap. He evidently cannot conceive of a world in which America and Iran are anything other than bitter enemies.
Why is the U.S., which maintains good relations with other odious regimes, unable to offer a hand of peace to Iran ? The reasons are psychological as much as political. Powerful Americans have never forgiven Iran’s mullahs for overthrowing the shah in 1979, taking U.S. diplomats hostage and opposing Western interests in the Middle East and beyond. They feel the mullahs must be given the punishment they have thus far escaped.
That punishment, in the form of bombs, could rain down on Iran at any moment. Believing it can’t happen increases the possibility that it will.
Stephen Kinzer is author of "All the Shah’s Men : An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror."