Our history with Iran is, to say the least, a checkered one. In the 1950s, under President Eisenhower, a CIA operation restored a pro-American shah to power; in the 1960s, the Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled; in the 1970s, the Islamic Revolution toppled the shah, Khomeini took control of the country and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, helping elect Ronald Reagan and George Bush (an event that made the presidency of George W. Bush a possibility), and in the 1980s, the United States supported Saddam Hussein in his long war against Iran. For a generation, the mention of Iran tended to evoke images of protesters chanting "Death to America!"
As the new century began, then, Tehran and Washington did not enjoy the cheeriest of connections. When Osama bin Laden struck America, however, Iran saw a chance to build up some good will by reaching out. For a few months in the autumn of 2001, we were allies in the war against the Taliban. But by January 2002, when President Bush decided to link Iran to Iraq and North Korea in the Axis of Evil, we were back in the twilight and now, in the early months of 2007, we are in the midst of a hidden war not only in diplomatic terms but on the ground in Iraq.
As our cover story, written by Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari with reporting from a team that included Babak Dehghanpisheh, Christopher Dickey, Mark Hosenball and John Barry, explains, the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions and its alleged role in arming militants in Iraq are elements in a compound of emerging conflict. Drawing parallels with the administration's drive to depose Saddam, skeptics worry that Bush is secretly planning to attack Iran. In fact, our reporting suggests that the truth is more unsettling than the conspiracy theories. According to our team, it is likelier that the two mutually suspicious nations will stumble into bloodshed in some kind of unexpected clash that could speedily spiral beyond our control and, like so much else in the region, prove impervious to our will.
By now it is a cliché in Washington that the war on terror will not end, as World War II did, in a clearly defined way, with the signing of a surrender aboard a warship. But the reality of our dangerously tense relationship with Iran underscores another fact about warfare: armed conflicts do not always begin in clearly defined ways, either. Politics and culture often create an atmosphere of fear, distrust and menace in which skirmishes--frequently murky and sometimes manufactured--take on disproportionate, and deadly, dimensions. The Gulf of Tonkin is a classic example, and the risk of a similar flash point with Iran appears real, and growing.
Historically, it would not be surprising if the Iraq war were to lead to conflict between the Americans and the Iranians. The wars of tomorrow often grow out of the wars of the moment, sometimes sooner (World War II almost immediately gave way to the cold war) and sometimes later (Hitler invaded Poland two decades after the armistice ended World War I).
But the past five years also offer us some hope. The shadowy war of the hour was not inevitable. There have been chances, and presumably will be again, for diplomatic progress. "The Manichaeans may have come from Persia," says Chris Dickey, our Mideast regional editor, "but in dealing with today's Iranians, nothing is clearly black or white." It is not easy, especially in the Middle East, to detect shades of gray, but on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the short-lived "Shock and Awe," a lot of Americans are looking for the administration to do just that.