The argument that we’re headed for a violent showdown with Iran is fairly easy to make. The Bush administration, which made Iran an honorary member of the Axis of Evil way back in 2002, has repeatedly claimed that Iran is undercutting US efforts to stabilize Iraq — by arming insurgents, training them, and giving them safe haven. What’s more, the administration has warned, time and again, that Iran’s nascent nuclear capabilities represent a grave threat — the same warning it made before invading Iraq. As President George W. Bush said in his recent speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, just after comparing Iran to Hitler’s Germany: “Permitting the world’s leading sponsor of terror to possess the world’s deadliest weapons would be an unforgivable betrayal for future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” Put simply, the rationale for an attack on Iran has already been established and honed.
Then again, it’s also possible to come up with a number of reasons why military action against Iran isn’t imminent. With the exception of Cheney, the hawks who backed the Iraq War (Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith) are no longer in positions of power. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are seen as skeptics. Any attack on Iran could destabilize Iraq and Lebanon, and undermine Israel’s new engagement with Syria. The military is already overextended. Oil prices would go through the roof. And no president — not even this one — goes to war a half-year before leaving the White House. Right?
There’s also the awkward fact that an attack on Iran has allegedly been imminent for an awfully long time. In April 2006, for example, the New Yorker published a Seymour Hersh story that asked whether the president would go to war with Iran to prevent that nation from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In September 2006, Time magazine published a cover story on possible Iranian hostilities titled “What Would War Look Like?” And in August 2007, time.com intelligence columnist Robert Baer wrote: “Officials I talk to in Washington vote for a hit on the [Republican Guard] maybe within the next six months. And they think that as long as we have bombers and missiles in the air, we will hit Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
Of course, these scenarios never came to pass. Instead, this past fall a US National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran had halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 — an assessment that instantly made a US attack seem far less likely. Consequently, developments that hint at the possibility of military action have seemed far less newsworthy than they once did.
“In my view, there is a significant ‘crying wolf’ aspect to this situation,” Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows says via e-mail. “Repeatedly over the last three years we’ve had reports that a strike was ‘imminent’ — that it would happen before the ’06 midterm elections, that it would happen to deflect controversy from the ‘surge,’ and now that it will happen during the waning days of Bush/Cheney’s hold on office.”