William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
Bush Is Stuck on Iran
In an interview with German TV reporters yesterday, President Bush went on again about War III.
Not in reference to Pakistan, mind you - though that's where much of the world's focus has turned this week. Nor does he seem particularly worried about failure in Iraq or Afghanistan, the spread of Islamic extremism, terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons - he didn't mention any of them when asked about his goals for the last year of his presidency.
Rather, Bush remains fixated on Iran. He repeated that he was "absolutely serious" when he warned last month that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to the ultimate conflagration. And he proclaimed yesterday: "[T]his is a country that has defied the IAEA -- in other words, didn't disclose all their program -- have said they want to destroy Israel. If you want to see World War III, you know, a way to do that is to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon. And so I said, now is the time to move."
It was a stupid, hyperbolic and weak statement. And Bush needs to stop repeating it.
Iran is still at least years away from having nuclear weapons. And with sanctions and international isolation and the preemptive tendencies of the U.S. and Israel, the likelihood of Iran successfully attaining nuclear capability is far less than 50-50.
It's also somewhat unlikely that Iran would move to attack Israel. As Fareed Zakaria observed recently in Newsweek: "Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century.... Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"
World War III, I've written before, would more likely ignite because of a normal set of events that careens out of control. Events Iraq or the Persian Gulf, for example, could lead to miscues and alerts and mobilizations and people shooting at each other across borders.
Of all the potential crises America and the world faces, Iran seems one of the easiest to put into a harmless box.
At the same time, given the extremism of the Tehran regime, singling out Iran as the one country likely to produce World War III is unnecessarily inflammatory. And so, we can fan the flames, thereby making conflict more likely. Or we can dispassionately and doggedly pursue positive outcomes, secure in the confidence that we are able to prioritize the true threats.