The Magazine

Iran or Bust

The defining test of Bush's war presidency.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By JEFFREY BELL
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One by one, Iran's radical president is removing the pretexts for U.S. inaction or delay. Could we live with a nuclear Iran? Not one led by a man who says the Jewish Holocaust never happened and muses about the possibility of correcting that Nazi failure by dropping a nuclear bomb on Israel. Is there a way to take advantage of the fact that the Shiite wing of Islamism has not taken part, so far, in a shooting war with the United States or its allies? Not with an Iranian president who convenes a terror summit in Damascus with Bashar Assad, the all-but-proven murderer of the former premier of Lebanon, and with Hamas, the avatar of Sunni terrorism in the Palestinian territories. Given these events, it would no longer be shocking to see Ahmadinejad at a summit with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq and an advocate of the mass murder of Shiites as a tactic in the war against U.S. forces and the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

Reports out of Iran suggest Ahmadinejad may see himself as a central actor in an Islamic apocalypse. A man with this mindset might see provoking the United States as forwarding the end game of Allah. And he might not fear provoking Israel into an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities that could trigger convulsions throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Much depends on how far Iran is from putting together its first nuclear warhead. Some reports, particularly those traced to Israeli intelligence, point to the very near future. Even if the ominous date turns out to be much further away, Ahmadinejad shows little sign of pausing for breath. Indeed, the Hamas sweep of the Palestinian parliamentary elections is no doubt being seen in Tehran as a vindication of Ahmadinejad's Damascus terror summit days earlier.

If the Bush administration is developing a military option to deal with Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons--a form of preemption--it is doing so very quietly. On the pure military level, this is, of course, appropriate. If you had to pick one flaw in the superbly organized U.S. invasion of Iraq, as Jed Babbin recently pointed out, it would be the lack of an element of surprise.

But what is starting to become clear is that Ahmadinejad's seemingly reckless challenge will extract, and is meant to extract, a cost in U.S. standing among our friends and allies, in Iraq and across the globe. A war president who can be portrayed as having given up on the core of his own war strategy will be seen as a leader considerably less capable of deterring our terrorist enemies, wherever they are and whatever it is they are plotting.

Jeffrey Bell is a principal of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.