Last weekend I met a happy hard-liner, a senior White House official, at a Washington party. His good mood, it turns out, had a lot to do with the new, uncompromising stance laid out by his boss, George W. Bush, against Iran. Until recently administration hawks had been somewhat worried about where their president was headed. Since the beginning of his second term, in their view, Bush had gone suspiciously soft on the question of how to stop Iran's nuclear program. He had acceded to Condoleezza Rice's demands that the United States back the multilateral diplomatic approach favored by the Europeans. But in the last two weeks the administration has been on a unilateralist tear against Iran once again, issuing hawkish rhetoric that far outpaces anything heard in European capitals. On Thursday the White House announced a broad array of sanctions that affect almost the entire Iranian government. Tehran, meanwhile, has hardened its own position considerably.
The end result of all this may be war, whether anyone really wants it or not.
On the U.S. side, the uptick in pressure appeared to begin at a news conference on Oct. 17, when the president said, seemingly off the cuff, "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [the Iranians] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." That was a breathtaking statement. What the president seemed to be saying was that World War III would result—and he would be seen as his generation's Neville Chamberlain—if he allowed the Iranians to go beyond the enrichment capability they've already achieved. Bush has no intention of becoming identified with the appeaser of Munich. Bush's jarring statement was followed by an Oct. 21 speech by Vice President Cheney. "We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," he said flatly. The dynamic duo that brought us the war in Iraq, Bush and Cheney, appear to be on the same page once again. In Tehran, meanwhile, the Iranian government now seems united around one idea: Iran will not give up "one iota" of its nuclear program, in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's words. The resignation of chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani this week, and his replacement by a close ally of Ahmadinejad's, Saeed Jalili (Larijani and the Iranian president were bitter rivals), is one strong sign that this hardened position will continue. As a Larijani ally in Tehran told me Thursday, the hard-line president likes to dominate "inexperienced and unprofessional people" like Jalili.
Asked whether war has grown more likely, administration officials say no. In the words of Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns on Thursday, the administration just wants to implement "stronger" diplomacy than it has been able to muster in the U.N. Security Council. "We do not believe conflict is inevitable," Burns said in explaining the new program of unilateral sanctions announced Thursday against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps, defense ministry and major banks. "In no way, shape or form does this anticipate the use of force."
But the new U.S. sanctions represent a lurch toward unilateralism that some European officials now fear could be "a repeat of 2002"—in other words, the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. For Washington the ambit of the Iran issue has changed—from a tight focus on Tehran's nuclear enrichment program, in tandem with the Europeans, to a broader indictment of Iran on the world stage. Hence Washington on Thursday named the IRGC, the umbrella organization that many Iranian officials belong to, a proliferator of ballistic missiles, along with the ministry of defense and Armed Forces Logistics agency. And it designated the Quds Force, an elite branch of the IRGC, a group that "provides material support" to the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and another Palestinian group. The Bush administration also designated two top Iranian banks—Melli and Mellat—nuclear and missile proliferators, and a third, Saderat, a financier of terrorism. That effectively isolates all three of them as rogues that companies around the world should not do business with if the latter hope to remain part of the international financial system and conduct their affairs in the United States. "The U.S. administration is going ahead on its own," a senior official with one of the "EU3" countries—Britain, France and Germany—said Thursday. "They seem to be putting the question of Iraq in along with [the nuclear issue]," referring to Iranian influence inside Iraq. The Europeans are also resisting painting the Iranian government broadly with the same brush. "We are not going to designate a whole movement [like the IRGC], as opposed to individuals," he said.
So both sides—the United States and Iran—have staked out extreme positions, and it is difficult to see how there can be a negotiated solution. Even if Tehran decides to suspend enrichment, for example—as unlikely as that it is—Washington will still suspect it of proliferation of missiles and support to terrorist groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. No wonder my White House hard-liner was so "relieved," as he told me.
Today the administration is casting Iran as America's biggest bogeyman on every front. National missile defense? Once Kim Jong Il of North Korea was identified as the target of this expensive project. No longer. In a speech Tuesday at National Defense University, Bush declared that "the need for missile defense in Europe … is urgent" because "Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles." Mideast peace? Never mind that the Palestinians are mixed up in a civil war of their own making and blaming the Israelis. Much of it is really the fault of "Iranian aggression," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared on Wednesday. "To see Iranian actual penetration now of these more radical elements of the Palestinian terrorist groups is really quite troubling," she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. U.S. generals are now routinely trotted out to blame Iranian interference and arms shipments for the continuing Islamist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, though Tehran plays at best a minor role there.
While some Europeans fear the new sanctions will be a slippery slope leading to war, administration officials counter that they may be the only way to avoid war. In other words: talk tough, make martial noises and the balky Russians and Chinese—fearful of another armed conflict—will approve sanctions in the Security Council. Then the Iranians will surely cave at the bargaining table. But let's understand something. The Bush administration seems singularly uninterested in truly bargaining—that is to say, compromising, which is what real negotiation is about—with a regime it wants to see replaced. That is why it refuses to discuss all outstanding issues at once—nukes, Iraq, Tehran's support of Hizbullah and Hamas, Israel and the Palestinians—which is what Iran would prefer. Instead the administration pretends that it can hold ambassadorial-level talks with Iran over Iraq in one place (Baghdad), and back European-led talks in another place (over the nuclear issue), while the president and his top aides demonize Tehran in every speech they give.
For their part, the Iranians are now so certain that the U.S. goal is regime change that they believe any concession would be seen as a sign of fatal weakness. And as the stalemate goes on, the Iranians are getting closer and closer to gaining "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," as Bush says. Whether they decide to make a bomb is another question: that may be negotiable. Many Iranians hint that they would be satisfied with being technically ready to build a bomb, without actually making one, as a sufficient strategic deterrent. But these nuances no longer seem important to the Bush administration.
Let's think about all this for a moment. World War III? Is that really what would result if Iran gained the "knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon"? Not if you listen to one of Bush's former top generals, recently retired CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid. "There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," Abizaid said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month. "I believe nuclear deterrence will work with the Iranians," Abizaid said. "I mean, Iran is not a suicide nation. They may have some people in charge that don't appear to be rational, but I doubt that the Iranians intend to attack us with a nuclear weapon … Let's face it: we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with [other] nuclear powers, as well."
But that's the realist line, and Bush is taking the Israeli line. For the Israelis, angered by Ahmadinejad's lunatic rhetoric about wiping them off the map, an Iranian bomb would seem to portend World War III. And indeed, an Iranian bomb, followed perhaps by several Arab bombs, would put Israel in mortal danger. But the same isn't true of the United States. Even many Israelis know that what Israel needs most to survive is a strong United States, not an overzealous friend in the White House. "Israel benefits when America performs well, when it is respected and succeeds in the world," Uzi Arad, Likudnik Bibi Netanyahu's adviser, told me. "If on the other hand the U.S. is in trouble, is in distress, it is little consolation the president has tremendous sympathies for Israel. President Bush by predisposition is clearly such a man, but the fact that he is in such difficulties is affecting the substance of the relationship."
War with Iran would be, in the best case, disastrous. Even the neocon hawk Norman Podhoretz, who is advising Rudy Giuliani and says he "hopes and prays" that Bush attacks Iran, admits that with such a war "we'll unleash a wave of anti-Americanism all over the world that will make the anti-Americanism we've experienced so far look like a lovefest." It would also guarantee Ahmadinejad's continuance in power. The Iranian president is currently unpopular at home; a U.S. attack would almost certainly rally his country around him and silence the pragmatists in Iran who are looking for a negotiated solution. An attack would also guarantee that Iranian interference in Iraq would escalate. There are no doubt hard-line chauvinists in Russia and China who would actually like to see such a war, because they know it would weaken the United States further. But Bush and Cheney seem to be following the logic of war right now, and unless something changes it will take them all the way to the bloody end.