The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq demonstrated its extraordinary capacity for self-deception. The White House rushed to grim conclusions about Iraq’s weapons program in advance of the facts. Afterward, when it became clear that the facts did not support these premature judgments, the president and his advisers expressed no regret. After all, they argued, if they had been wrong, so had everyone else-or at least everyone worth listening to.
An administration so adept at misleading itself, and so reluctant to admit error, can hardly help misleading the public. Many are worried that the same penchant for facile rationalization will lead the White House to push for war with Iran. Certainly, if the administration is looking for excuses to attack Iran, it won’t have much trouble finding them.
There is evidence that the Iranian military has provided Shiite militias with roadside bombs that have killed at least 170 U.S. soldiers since June 2004. During recent raids in Baghdad and Erbil, U.S. forces captured members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is no secret that Iran’s leaders regard America’s presence in Iraq as a threat to their own security. Even if they are not themselves responsible for the material support the Iraqi insurgency has received from inside Iran, they have done little to prevent it.
Then there is Iran’s nuclear program. In open defiance of a UN Security Council Resolution, Iran has continued to enrich uranium. Iranian officials insist they are interested in nuclear energy, not bombs, but there are reasons to doubt them. Last year, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States offered Iran assistance with civil-nuclear technologies and direct negotiations with Washington if Iran stopped its uranium enrichment. The Iranians flatly rejected the offer.
Finally, there’s Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claims the Holocaust never happened and loudly calls for the destruction of Israel. There are signs that his reckless provocations, together with Iran’s growing economic problems, may be undermining his support among Iranian voters and the clerics to whom he must answer. In any case, Iran’s Constitution gives him no control over Iran’s national-security policies. But as long as he remains in power, the international community, and Israel in particular, will have good reason to be concerned.
Each of these problems is serious, and together they may make Iran a serious danger, but they do not justify a preemptive attack. Most experts agree that Iran is at least a couple of years away from being able to produce a bomb. Until then, it faces economic challenges that make it especially vulnerable to the kind of sanctions the UN has adopted in conjunction with its recent resolution. Iran’s entire economy depends on oil (with the world’s second-largest reserves, it pumps about 4 million barrels a day), but its oil fields are becoming less productive. The country badly needs foreign investment and technology to improve the old fields and to develop new ones. The longer the Iranians insist on continuing their nuclear program, the harder it will be for them to find foreign capital. As their oil revenues begin to decline, the demand for government spending-to subsidize commodities like bread, meat, and gasoline-will continue to grow. Iran’s high inflation and unemployment threaten not only Ahmadinejad, but the entire regime. Well-enforced economic sanctions might persuade the Iranians to reconsider their position. As for Iran’s noxious influence in Iraq, it is a problem to be dealt with in Iraq, and at its borders; and it is a problem that must not be exaggerated for political purposes.
It is now easy to forget that America’s relations with Iran were improving after September 11. Iran condemned the terrorist attacks and lent its support to the U.S. effort to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2003, Iran’s National Security Council approved a proposal for comprehensive talks with the United States, but the White House never followed up. By then President Bush had decided to include Iran in his “Axis of Evil,” partly in order to keep his critics from claiming he had unfairly singled out Iraq. Now there is the temptation to find some other country to blame for our failure in Iraq. The president seems to have chosen Iran and firmly refuses to meet with its leaders. “This is a world in which people say, ‘Meet! Sit down and meet!’” the president has said. “And my answer is, if it yields results, that’s what I’m interested in.” But he has it backward: he will have to show he’s interested before he can reasonably expect results. The president should not try to convince himself, and us, that he already knows what talks with Iran could accomplish.