There appears to be an emerging consensus in Washington and around the world, that war with Iran is just a matter of time. But is this consensus right? There are good reasons to believe that the Bush administration, while convinced that an Iran capable of producing nuclear weapons represents a major threat to international security, will conclude that military force does not offer a desirable answer. The reason is not that the threat would not warrant the use of military force, but that the military, political, and international context for making such a decision militates against it.
The Iranian nuclear threat is no doubt more real than the Iraqi nuclear threat in 2003. Whereas the "evidence" of an Iraqi nuclear program hinged on disputed information about yellowcake purchases in Niger and the acquisition of aluminum tubes, Tehran has been quite open about its desire to master the technical process of enriching uranium (which constitutes the most critical step in producing a bomb). This reality has led many people to conclude that if President Bush decided to go to war on the basis of flimsy evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program in 2003, then surely he will go to war on the basis of much more substantial evidence of an Iranian program this time around.
But this conclusion is based on a misreading of what happened in 2002-03. What made war possible then was not the threat (nuclear or otherwise) that Iraq supposedly posed, but the context within which Bush made the decision to go to war. And in decisions about war and peace, context matters.
Back then, America was still under the spell of 9/11 — so that arguments about the need to prevent possible new threats through military action rang louder and more convincing than they do now, nearly four years since terrorists turned jetliners into weapons of mass destruction. Then, too, America had just scored what appeared to be an easy military victory in Afghanistan, leaving many commentators and civilian defense officials to expect a similarly easy victory in Iraq. Some may still think that bombing Iran will prove easy — but the administration will surely know that successfully preempting Iran's nuclear program requires the kind of intelligence about target locations that we simply do not have. Iraq, moreover, has demonstrated that counting on an easy aftermath is sheer folly. Iran can retaliate in multiple ways, from making life in Iraq and Afghanistan exceedingly unpleasant to attacking oil shipping in the Gulf and the Straights of Hormuz and even launching terrorist strikes against American forces, American interests, and even against its people at home. Attacking Iran's nuclear program would be no more a cakewalk than was the liberation of Iraq.
Politically, too, the context for war is very different today than it was in 2002-03. Then, the president was still riding high in the polls, and the American people looked to him as a trusted, competent, and strong leader. Now, Bush's approval ratings have collapsed and Americans have lost faith in his honesty, competence, and leadership. In one recent poll, fully 54 percent of Americans said they did not trust Bush to make the right decision on Iran. And given the trends in public opinion, these numbers are bound to get worse over time. Equally important, there wasn't much political debate about the wisdom of war three years ago. Most Senate and many House Democrats joined Republicans in giving Bush the blankest of blank checks — and a significant majority of Americans supported going to war. Today, the possibility of attacking Iran is hotly — and rightly — debated, and it would be inconceivable for Bush to gain congressional backing for such a move absent a far more dire and imminent threat from Iran.
And then there is the international context. While back then doubts about the direction of American foreign policy had already begun to set in, and opposition to going to war against Iraq was mounting, Bush could still count on getting the backing of many important players. In 2002, that included getting a unanimous vote on a UN Security Council resolution declaring Baghdad in breach of past UN resolutions and warning of serious consequences in case Iraq failed to come into full compliance. In 2003, it meant getting significant military backing from Britain, Australia, and some other key allies — and the political backing of still more countries. Today, even Tony Blair has made clear that Bush would be on his own if he attacked Iran.
None of this guarantees that Bush will not attack Iran — good arguments, huge potential costs, and the absence of political and international support have never been decisive in his calculations. But with the human, economic, political, and diplomatic consequences of the Iraq war so very evident to all, there is nothing inevitable about war with Iran. Indeed, there's a reasonable chance — even a good one — that Bush will make the right decision this time around.