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An Iranian Missile Crisis?

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The emerging confrontation between the United States and Iran is "the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion," argues Graham Allison, the Harvard University professor who wrote the classic study of President John F. Kennedy's 1962 showdown with the Soviet Union that narrowly averted nuclear war. If anything, that analogy understates the potential risks here.

President Bush tried to calm the war fever Monday, describing stories about military contingency plans for bombing Iran that appeared last weekend in The Post and the New Yorker as "wild speculation." But those stories did no more than flesh out the strategic options that might be necessary to back up the administration's public pledge, in its National Security Strategy, "to block the threats posed" by Iran and its nuclear program.

The administration insists that it wants diplomacy to do the preemption, even as its military planners are studying how to take out Iran's nuclear facilities if diplomacy should fail. Iran, meanwhile, is pursuing its own version of preemption, announcing yesterday that it has begun enriching uranium -- a crucial first step toward making a bomb. Neither side wants war -- who in his right mind would? -- but both frame choices in ways that make war increasingly likely.

The impasse was summarized by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, in a quote attributed to a Pentagon adviser: "The bottom line is that Iran cannot become a nuclear-weapons state. The problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the U.S."

Allison argues that Bush's dilemma is similar to the one that confronted Kennedy in 1962. His advisers are telling him that he may face a stark choice -- either to acquiesce in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a dangerous adversary, or risk war to stop that nuclear fait accompli . Hard-liners warned JFK that alternative courses of action would only delay the inevitable day of reckoning, and Bush is probably hearing similar advice now.

Kennedy's genius was to reject the Cuba options proposed by his advisers, hawk and dove alike, and choose his own peculiar outside-the-box strategy. He issued a deadline but privately delayed it; he answered a first, flexible message from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev but not a second unyielding one; he said he would never take U.S. missiles out of Turkey, as the Soviets were demanding, and then secretly did precisely that. Disaster was avoided because Khrushchev believed Kennedy was willing to risk war -- but wanted to avoid it.

The Bush administration needs to be engaged in a similar exercise in creative thinking. The military planners will keep looking for targets (as they must, in a confrontation this serious). But Bush's advisers -- and most of all, the president himself -- must keep searching for ways to escape the inexorable logic that is propelling America and Iran toward war. I take heart from the fact that the counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Philip Zelikow, is an expert on the Cuban missile crisis who co-authored the second edition of Allison's "Essence of Decision."

What worries me is that the relevant historical analogy may not be the 1962 war that didn't happen, but World War I, which did. The march toward war in 1914 resulted from the tight interlocking of alliances, obligations, perceived threats and strategic miscalculations. The British historian Niall Ferguson argued in his book "The Pity of War" that Britain's decision to enter World War I was a gross error of judgment that cost that nation its empire.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, makes a similar argument about Iran. "I think of war with Iran as the ending of America's present role in the world," he told me this week. "Iraq may have been a preview of that, but it's still redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran, we'll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world will condemn us. We will lose our position in the world."

Brzezinski urges President Bush to slow down and think carefully about his options -- rather than rushing to stop Iran's nuclear program, which by most estimates is five to 10 years away from building a bomb, even after yesterday's announcement. "Time is on our side," says Brzezinski. "The mullahs aren't the future of Iran, they're the past." As the United States carefully weighs its options, there is every likelihood that the strategic picture will improve.

The Bush administration has demonstrated, in too many ways, that it's better at starting fights than finishing them. It shouldn't make that same mistake again. Threats of war will be more convincing if they come slowly and reluctantly, when it has become clear that truly there is no other choice.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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