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What to Ask Before the Next War

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second from right, prays at the campus of Tehran University on Friday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second from right, prays at the campus of Tehran University on Friday. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)

The most neglected questions concern other consequences of a U.S. strike or any other U.S.-Iranian combat, even if such combat did not lead to a prolonged occupation. How would Tehran respond to an act of war? What terrorism might it launch against the United States? How would it exploit U.S. vulnerabilities next door in Iraq, where it has barely begun to exploit the influence it has assiduously been cultivating? What other military action might it take, with the risk of a wider war in the Persian Gulf?

Other effects concern Iranian politics. How much would the direct assertion of U.S. hostility strengthen Iranian hard-liners, whose policies are partly premised on such hostility? How much would it add to all Iranians' list of historical grievances against the United States and adversely affect relations with future governments?

Broader regional and global ramifications include the impact on the oil market, whether other Middle Eastern nations would be less willing to cooperate with the United States and the prospect of exacerbating the damage the Iraq war already has dealt to U.S. standing worldwide.

Some might argue that the worst case that could ensue from an Iranian nuclear weapon is so bad that it trumps all other considerations. But there is no more reason than there was with Iraq to consider the worst case of only one side of the policy equation. And the worst case that could result from U.S.-Iranian combat is plenty frightening: thousands of Americans dead from retaliatory terrorist attacks, a broader war in the Persian Gulf, $150-per-barrel oil, a global recession and more.

That's not the most likely case -- neither is a vision of Iranian-generated mushroom clouds -- but it is plausible that substantial portions of that scenario would materialize.

Avoiding the next military folly in the Middle East requires that the agenda for analysis and debate not be so severely and tendentiously truncated as before Iraq. Not only must proponents of military action not be allowed to manipulate the answers, they also should not be allowed to define the questions.

The writer, a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, teaches security studies at Georgetown University.

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